Maryland regulators on Tuesday approved all of the stormwater cleanup financing plans submitted by the state’s largest localities, despite criticism from environmental advocates that many of the blueprints are flawed and fail to map out adequate local funding of required pollution reductions.
The Maryland Department of the Environment issued a statement saying that Baltimore city and the state’s nine largest counties met their requirements under state law to develop financing plans showing how they will pay to reduce stormwater runoff and restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
The announcement comes a day after the Bay Journal reported that a coalition of 18 environmental groups had charged that there were “significant procedural and substantive flaws” in how the localities complied with the law. The groups called on the MDE to reject deficient plans and make local officials fix them.
Under legislation enacted in 2015, Maryland’s largest localities were relieved of an unpopular mandate that they levy stormwater management fees on their property owners. Instead, the city and counties were directed to submit “financial assurance plans” spelling out how they would pay for the runoff reductions required under municipal stormwater permits issued by the MDE, with approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Gov. Larry Hogan issued a statement hailing the plans. Hogan, a Republican, had campaigned on a pledge to repeal the stormwater fee mandate, which he and other critics derided as a “rain tax.”
“Today’s news further illustrates what many Marylanders and local officials have already known for years: The state does not need to impose yet another burdensome tax on homeowners and job creators in order to successfully manage stormwater runoff,” Hogan said. “The innovative plans put forward by these jurisdictions offer even more proof that repealing the Rain Tax was the right thing to do.”
But environmental advocates said the Hogan administration apparently turned a blind eye to the funding gaps and questionable measures laid out in many of the localities’ plans.
Some rely on receiving sizable grants from the state and other outside sources, which are not assured, to cover their local shortfalls. Others depend on programs and projects of questionable value at reducing runoff, while at least half count on “pollution trading,” a practice that has yet to be approved by the state, to offset their projected failures to reduce runoff enough. And some counties contend they’re being asked to do too much, echoing lawsuits they’ve filed in court challenging the state’s authority to require greater stormwater reductions than they consider feasible.
Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles had acknowledged two weeks ago that his staff had missed deadlines for reporting on the plans to state lawmakers and to the EPA, and for informing localities whether their plans passed muster.
At the time, he said his staff was struggling to weigh how much flexibility to accord the localities in spelling out their financing plans and how much to hold them accountable for making realistic projections.
On Tuesday, the MDE said it had found that each locality’s plan outlined sufficient funding, and that state regulators would “work directly with the counties to facilitate any needed adjustments.”
Grumbles issued a statement saying that Maryland’s largest jurisdictions “deserve credit for stepping forward to pay for these clean water projects — for the good of our environment and Maryland’s economy.” The MDE statement said that the 10 localities projected spending more than $1 billion combined over the next five years on stormwater reduction projects.
The MDE statement did not address, though, how the counties’ funding plans could be deemed sufficient if they relied on large infusions of outside funding that in several cases hasn’t even been requested yet, much less promised. In letters directly to the counties, MDE officials simply said that if the projected outside sums were not forthcoming, the localities would have to make it up.
Similarly, for those jurisdictions looking to use pollution trading to make up for shortfalls in reducing runoff, the MDE said other measures would be needed if the trades didn’t pan out. Half of the 10 localities projected filling sizable gaps in stormwater cleanup by taking pollution reduction credits for better-than-required performance of local wastewater treatment plants. The MDE has voiced support in principle for such trading, but has yet to adopt regulations spelling out how it could occur.
“Is there a plan they would not have approved?” asked Evan Isaacson, an analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. The Washington-based think tank reviewed the localities financing plans itself and reported that it found a number of gaps and flaws in them.
Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, noted polluted runoff from streets, parking lots, buildings and other impervious surfaces is the only source of Bay pollution that continues to grow.
“This legislation was designed to require these jurisdictions to articulate clearly plans detailing how they would reduce the pollution,” Prost said. “And many of those plans are fundamentally flawed. Six of the county plans only commit to doing half the work that their stormwater permit requires.”
Prost said the MDE “must be held accountable for approving these flawed plans.” She said foundation officials are weighing possible legal action, but may also urge legislative leaders to consider revising the law yet again to demand more accountability. Prost said environmental advocates may also call on the EPA to step in, as federal officials have already found Maryland’s stormwater reduction efforts lagging.
“Urban and suburban polluted runoff have severely degraded local rivers and streams, damaging fish and wildlife and creating human health risks,” Prost said in a statement issued in response to the MDE announcement. “Without clear and transparent plans to reduce that pollution it will be difficult to restore water quality.”