south river advocacy

EnforcementAuditCover

In late June, I started an investigation of Anne Arundel County’s enforcement of its environmental code. I was motivated to do so after reporting a large sediment release from a construction project along Rt.2. Upon discussing it with County personnel, I learned that it is very rare for the County to issue a civil fine for incidents causing environmental damage.  Effectively, as long as a violator acknowledges that they have caused damage and informs the County that they will try to prevent it from happening again, there is no consequence for polluting County waterways.

It is time we stopped allowing environmental damage to occur without consequence.

Read Jesse's Environmental Enforcement Report here

Reality of violations

In order to assess the extent of this apparent flaw in the County’s enforcement system, the Federation has collected every environmental enforcement case opened by Anne Arundel County since 2014 and is analyzing how it was resolved. While the analysis is ongoing, some obvious trends have already emerged. In 2014 and 2015, the County opened 647 and 675 environmental compliance cases, respectively. A little less than a third of cases, opened by complaints, result in any action being taken. This makes sense, as many of these complaints are made by citizens who might not like how their neighbor is digging a garden, or who might make a complaint out of precaution, not knowing the specifics of the law. However, it appears that of the approximately 30% of complaints that do reflect a legitimate environmental violation, only about 50-60 receive a stop work order, fine, or referral to the Office of Law. In other words, less than a quarter of all violations, on which the County takes any action, receive any kind of consequence.

To be clear, remediation or deferral of a fine may be appropriate in some cases. If appropriate sediment controls, placed at a person’s property for home renovation/extension, were overwhelmed by a powerful storm, quickly repairing the problem may be all that is necessary. If a person tills the earth for a garden and genuinely didn’t know that a grading permit was required for their work, but then goes to obtain one, this corrective action may be sufficient. These are not the sort of violations our efforts are zeroing in on. Rather, it is the persistent violations by companies and individuals who knowingly act outside of the law, or the truly significant single violations that go without consequence that merit stronger enforcement action by the County.

                                           

These photos indicate environmental violations. The left shows sediment pollution from ineffective silt fencing placement and the right shows an illegal tire dump in the South River Watershed whose cleanup was complicated and delayed by the extensiveness of the dump. 

Ineffective penalties

Several County personnel and others have expressed that current penalties are not effective deterrents for environmental carelessness. Although the County might issue fines totaling tens of thousands of dollars for large projects, some firms may be able to simply absorb this into their budget as the cost of doing business. Some County personnel have opined that their best enforcement tool is a stop work order, but this tool has limitations too. It requires that a violation be noted while it is happening, which is often not the case. In addition, if a stop work order is issued, the violator will be required to fix up the condition which warrants the order, but damage already done is often unresolved.

The ongoing enforcement audit is intended to identify the shortcomings in the County’s enforcement apparatus. Stay tuned as the Federation establishes conclusively what those shortcomings are, who is responsible for them, and how we can fix it.

Yours for Clean Water,

--Jesse Iliff