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Md. Runs Short of Pollution Inspectors

As part of efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay, Maryland is proposing a crackdown on manure runoff from big poultry farms. The initiative would add to the load of environmental inspectors.
As part of efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay, Maryland is proposing a crackdown on manure runoff from big poultry farms. The initiative would add to the load of environmental inspectors. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Maryland does not have enough inspectors enforcing its environmental laws, and the shortage has become more severe over the past five years, state officials say, raising worries that the state's new "green" policies will be undercut by insufficient policing.

The state Department of the Environment, which checks factories, power plants and construction sites for violations of pollution rules, has 132 inspectors to cover 205,000 sites. That's a ratio of one to more than 1,500, significantly worse than the 1-to-1,090 ratio the state had in 2003.

Now, state officials are proposing to use these same inspectors to carry out a new environmental crackdown, targeting manure-laden runoff from Maryland's 200 largest chicken farms.

Environmental activists and the state attorney general say they are worried that Maryland is trying to do too much with too little and weakening the threat of enforcement that keeps polluters honest.

"You can have all the laws on the books that you want, but if you don't have the people to enforce the laws . . . you're getting nowhere," said Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D). He called the Department of the Environment's force of inspectors "not even close to adequate."

Environmentalists say it is difficult to determine what the state's shortfall of inspectors has meant for the environment, because no one knows how much has been missed. At last count, state figures show the Department of the Environment reached about 23 percent of the sites -- though not all of them are required to be inspected annually.

Activists say that even if the inspectors are missing only small-scale violations, those might add up to large-scale damage.

Ed Merrifield, an activist for the Potomac River whose title is "riverkeeper," pointed to a program in which state inspectors were supposed to check construction sites every two weeks, to see whether too much silt was running off into nearby waters. At last count, inspectors reached only 18 percent of those sites even once a year.

"Too much sediment in our water is a problem for everything that lives in the water," Merrifield said. "It can get in the gills of the fish and kill the fish. If animals can't see what's in the water, they can't eat what's there. Too much sediment in the water kills everything that's growing there."

The state secretary of the environment, Shari T. Wilson, conceded in an interview that "the resources are not adequate." She blamed state budget shortages, saying there were no funds to hire new inspectors. A spokeswoman for the department said officials could not say how many new inspectors would be needed to make the force adequate.

Wilson said her department, which enforces most of the state's environmental laws, had limited the damage by concentrating its inspections on sites with a history of pollution or a large potential to cause harm.

"We are doing as much as we can with the resources that we have," Wilson said. She said that if any polluters slipped through the cracks, "the degradation [of the environment] that occurs because of violation of laws would probably be very small."

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