Maryland government needs to prosecute environmental crimes


Graphic by Charlotte Alden.

By Maddy Frank

During his 2014 campaign, Governor Larry Hogan promised to make Maryland more business friendly. To fulfill this promise, he has been easing enforcement of environmental regulations on businesses. In fact, prosecutions against businesses that break Maryland environmental laws are at a 20-year low, according to the Baltimore Sun.

As a result, environmental enforcement agencies in the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) have gotten significantly smaller. These agencies work to make sure businesses comply with environmental guidelines. The Environmental Crimes Unit (ECU), for example, has seen major staff and activity reductions. In 2014, the unit opened 48 investigations with a staff of six investigators. In 2015, they opened even more, totaling 49. However, they only had a staff of four investigators.

Another metric to track the unit’s recent activity decline is through cases filed in court; in 2014, there were 31, according to the 2014 Annual Enforcement and Compliance Report. In 2015, after budget reductions under Gov. Hogan, that number fell to 18, according to the 2015 report. These reductions in staffing and productivity threaten Maryland’s environment. A lack of prosecution makes it easier for businesses to pollute, potentially damaging the Chesapeake Bay and the state’s air quality.

To remedy this issue, the Maryland General Assembly should allocate more funding in the 2018 budget for environmental inspectors, to ensure the MDE can protect Maryland’s environment.

Inspectors ensure that Marylanders are protected against non-environmentally friendly businesses. But in order to effectively curtail harmful environmental practices, the MDE needs a sufficient budget to hire enough inspectors. This would help preserve natural landmarks like the Chesapeake Bay and generate environmental and economic benefits for the state.

Higher staffing levels would help units like the ECU be more proactive in finding businesses and individuals who have committed environmental crimes. Without enough inspectors, it becomes difficult to handle complex cases effectively or follow through with some prosecutions.

The lack of inspectors poses a major environmental risk. The MDE’s minimized budget has made it more difficult to refer cases to the ECU in the Attorney General’s office for further investigation and potential prosecution.

“When you’re not giving a department enough money, to either fund the attorneys to prosecute these cases, or to have enough inspectors to identify the problem, then it’s a very slow [process]… of prosecution,” Melinda Hamilton, an aide to Delegate Edith Patterson (D) said.

When the department doesn’t have the capacity to refer their cases, fewer businesses are prosecuted. In 2014, MDE referrals to the EDU accounted for over two-thirds of the investigations opened, while in 2015 only one-third of investigations opened came from MDE.

Continued enforcement is critical to protect the Chesapeake Bay, which brings in up to $357.9 million to $1.8 billion in revenue from tourism each year, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). If pollution continues to reach the Bay, it would jeopardize this source of revenue.

In addition, since approximately 100,000 rivers and streams feed into the Bay, according to the CBF, toxic or chemicalized water runoff or improper land use by agricultural businesses across the state can directly harm the water. This can spread bacteria, viruses and parasites to animals and plants who are dependent on the bay, impacting wildlife across the state.

The quality of the bay, however, has been improving. In 2016, it received a “C” on the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science annual Chesapeake Bay Report, a considerable improvement from previous years. However, it took Maryland 40 years to get that C, and the Maryland General Assembly can’t relax enforcement now and risk worsening an already fragile ecosystem, Delegate David Fraser-Hildago said.

Supporters of Hogan’s agenda argue that most businesses—even if presented with the opportunity—would choose not to pollute because of the known implications to the environment. But this argument is unrealistic.

Certain businesses, attempting to make more money, will take every opportunity to work around or completely avoid seemingly confusing or tedious environmental procedures. To increase enforcement of these crucial laws, the Maryland General Assembly should allot more budgetary funds to environmental law enforcement agencies so they have adequate resources to enforce important regulations.

The state government needs to take precautions to ensure the environment will be sustained for generations to come. Maryland’s fragile environment is an important part of our lives; it’s time for our government to enforce policies that treat it as such.