ANNAPOLIS – Maryland dumped almost 260,000 pounds of toxic metals into its waterways in 1997, ranking the state 11th worst in the nation for such pollution, according to a study released Thursday by an environmental watchdog group.
The report, compiled from the federal EPA’s most recent Toxics Release Inventory data by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, also found that 15 of Maryland’s largest industrial, municipal and federal facilities violated the Clean Water Act at least once from October 1997 to December 1998.
These emissions contributed to the 2.3 million pounds of toxic pollution released in the state in 1997, including metals, carcinogens, nutrients and toxins that cause reproductive problems.
There was some good news for the state.
The state’s discharge of about 15,000 pounds of carcinogens and chemicals harmful to reproduction pushed it out of the top-15 states in that category, said Lea Johnston, executive director of MaryPIRG.
Toxic metals, such as mercury and lead, accumulate in sediment and climb the food chain, from plants to fish to humans. These non-biodegradable toxins travel through placental barriers to cause fetal abnormalities and inhibit brain development.
Alabama ranked No. 1 in the nation for its release of more than 1.1 million pounds of toxic metal. Nevada, with the best record, released no toxic metals.
The Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay absorbed the most toxic metals in Maryland in 1997 – 156,562 and 43,376 pounds respectively.
The study dismayed environmentalists.
Ranking 11th in discharge of toxic metals is bad enough, but “when you look at the size of this state, it makes it even more frightening,” said Kimberly Coble, Maryland Senior Scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
MaryPIRG’s Johnston blames poor enforcement, particularly of the Clean Water Act, and low penalties for the state’s ranking.
The Maryland Department of the Environment, which enforces the federal regulation, “is understaffed and overworked,” she said. “We have seen them running the gamut from water to air and to land.”
Polluters who violated Clean Water Act permits included 10 municipal facilities and five industries, according to MaryPIRG. Baltimore’s Department of Public Works’ Ashburton Filtration Plant exceeded limits in each of the five quarters studied.
The violations were not major and the department’s environmental record has improved, said spokesman Kurt Kocher.
“Enforcement is fundamental to making this work,” Coble said, “and it is certainly part of the problem.”
The Department of the Environment disagrees: “We take enforcement very seriously, but we can only take it as far as the federal government mandates,” said Susan Woods, agency spokeswoman.
Companies releasing the most toxic metals in the state included Millennium Inorganic Chemicals of Baltimore, which released 150,000 pounds of byproduct chemicals from its titanium-oxide plant. Bethlehem Steel Corp. of Sparrows Point dumped 43,150 pounds and fabric-maker Rockland Industries Inc.’s Baltimore plant discharged 41,000 pounds.
Millennium, an international company, has pledged to reduce manganese emissions by 25 percent before 2004, said spokesman Louis Kistner. The Maryland plant discharges the metal byproduct into the Patapsco.
“The data is horribly misleading,” said Mark Berman, chief executive officer of Rockland. “We are a very environmentally responsible corporation.” The plant’s runoff is treated by Baltimore’s wastewater facilities, he said. But MaryPIRG and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are pushing for stiffer penalties and higher federal and state water quality standards.
Penalties are so low, Johnston said, that it is cheaper for companies to pollute than to adhere to the law. Civil and criminal penalties, determined case by case, can range from $100 to $25,000 per violation, Woods said. Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, has proposed a bill this session to increase from $2,500 to $25,000 the maximum penalty the Department of the Environment can assess for air quality violations. Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, introduced an unsuccessful bill the last two years to increase penalties for offenders of various environmental laws. Maryland’s pollution woes also stem from legal practices. Mixing-zones, or mile-long areas near effluent pipes, are zones where companies can exceed federal water quality standards. The buffer zones are legal because the toxins are expected to dilute as they spread, Coble said. Standards like that will only keep Maryland’s pollution numbers high, she said. “Using dilution to meet standards in the year 2000 should not be a mechanism to treat pollution.”