As our understanding of COVID-19 grows, it has become increasingly clear that air pollution levels correlate with more severe illness and higher mortality among those infected. Despite this understanding, on March 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued guidance announcing it was suspending some of its existing pollution enforcement policies. The guidance was widely covered by the press and rightfully immediately criticized by advocates and elected officials.
The EPA guidance is dangerous policy and Maryland must ensure that we take our duty to enforce environmental laws as seriously as our stay-at-home guidance. While we applaud Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles’ assertion that the state will not suspend environmental enforcement and will continue to handle enforcement and compliance on a case-by-case basis, we need his department, and all environmental state agencies, to be clear that they will continue to enforce our environmental laws and to be transparent about their level of enforcement.
If Marylanders are to have confidence that our state government is acting in the best interests of residents—even if the federal government isn’t–it is critical that Maryland’s Department of the Environment (MDE), Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Department of Agriculture (MDA) act promptly to provide comprehensive information regarding violations and enforcement via the web. Unfortunately, as it stands, none of these agencies is providing up to date and detailed information.
As we shelter in place, Marylanders must have confidence that our state government is doing all it can to keep us safe from environmental hazards. Unfortunately, our departments do not provide enough information for Marylanders to draw their own conclusions. Because our departments provide no online information regarding pollution levels, inspections, and the granting of enforcement waivers, we are kept in the dark. In addition to enhancing online access across the state’s three major environmental agencies, Maryland should establish a central environmental ombudsman so that citizens and elected officials know where to turn for answers and assistance about environmental concerns. As the budget for environmental compliance monitoring has decreased over the past decade, and with enforcement levels at all-time lows, it is more important than ever that Marylanders be able to assist in oversight.
Marylanders need to know that companies that have degraded our air and water will not be permitted to continue polluting. Companies that have been deemed “essential” must not be allowed to use the pandemic as an excuse to stop complying with environmental regulations. Marylanders need to know if facilities are halting pollution monitoring and reporting, as well as other compliance efforts.
We need to know how much more air and water pollution may be occurring as public attention is turned to containing the pandemic, and which communities are bearing the brunt of this damage. We need to know if facilities are honestly trying to minimize pollution, and whether those facilities seeking enforcement waivers from EPA actually need to because of work stoppages.
As legislators, our first job is to do all we can to help our constituents stay safe. It is past time for Maryland to join nearly every other state in the Chesapeake Bay region in providing the public with online access to information regarding compliance with environmental laws and public health protections.
The state agencies responsible for protecting our environment and enforcing our environmental laws—MDE, DNR, and MDA–must act rapidly to create better online accountability—and we are looking forward to working with them to support legislation strengthening such accountability.
— BROOKE E. LIERMAN AND SARAH K. ELFRETH
Brooke E. Lierman, a Democrat, represents Baltimore City’s District 46 in the House of Delegates. Sarah K. Elfreth, a Democrat, represents Anne Arundel County’s District 30 in the state Senate.