The Chesapeake Bay's Riverkeepers are petitioning the EPA to take away Maryland's authority to issue discharge permits, claiming that the state agency isn't following the law.

Since 1989, Maryland has had the authority to issue permits for point-source discharges under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program, which came out of the Clean Water Act. Under the system, the state determines how much pollution an industry can safely discharge into the water, and is supposed to monitor those discharges.

The Riverkeepers charge that Maryland has failed to do that, and the Bay is suffering as a result.

"Our problem isn't so much that the companies aren't complying but that the state is paying absolutely no attention to what they're reporting," said Severn Riverkeeper Fred Kelly. "All you have to do is ask for any permit in any area, to see what kind of compliance action has been taken. You can go and see there's no enforcement going on."

The Riverkeepers' petition said that Maryland hasn't raised some of its fines for noncompliance in years, so it doesn't have a good deterrent factor. It also pointed out several companies, treatment plants and other industries that are operating under long-expired permits. It complained that the department does too few inspections and mentioned the lack of public involvement in permitting decisions.

The Riverkeepers would like the EPA to take over the process, or force Maryland to adopt stricter standards that include a chronic violator penalty. They also want enforcement information available electronically, and an ombudsman office to help citizens with violation concerns.

The Riverkeepers are filing the petition with the support of the Waterkeeper Alliance and the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic.

Maryland Department of the Environment spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus said that the action came as a surprise. Recently, she said, the MDE has stepped up its enforcement. The agency is enacting a tough poultry-litter permit and a stormwater permit with some of the strongest restrictions in the state, if not the country.

But, she added, "One of the things we certainly acknowledge is a shortage of resources. Some of our inspection rates are lower than we'd like."

Kelly said the petition was inspired by recent tough talk from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who is demanding more accountability in the Bay cleanup. But, Kelly said, he doesn't expect the EPA to actually take away the state's authority; it hasn't in several other states where environmentalists have filed similar lawsuits. Instead, he says, the petition is a "last-straw" effort, because everything else they've tried has failed. It may also help bring in more federal dollars so that the MDE can better do its job.