WASHINGTON – More than 46 percent of Maryland’s industrial and municipal facilities violated pollution standards of their Clean Water Act permits during an 18-month period in 2002 and 2003, the Maryland Public Interest Research Group reported.
Those facilities exceeded the limits of their respective permits by an average of 144 percent, but MaryPIRG officials said many of the violators “don’t get dealt with strictly enough” by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The report was partly based on undisclosed EPA data that the U.S. PIRG obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“This is the point: These reports were obtained from EPA’s records. The EPA has known about what has been going on but has not been doing anything about it,” said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
But an EPA spokeswoman said that “the PIRG report makes no distinctions between significant violations and insignificant violations.”
Cathy Milbourn, the spokeswoman, said the agency has not fully reviewed the report, which was released Tuesday. But she said that EPA actions against clean-water violators have increased in the last year and that the agency plans to compile a “watch list” in the next year to monitor repeat offenders of the Clean Water Act.
MaryPIRG named three companies that had the worst violations of federal water regulations between January 2002 and June 2003: the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Charles County, which exceeded its permit by 6,317 percent on one occasion; the Havre de Grace wastewater treatment plant, which went 3,500 percent over its limit; and Mettiki Coal in Garrett County, which exceeded federal permit limits for fecal coliform levels by 300 percent in July 2002.
But Mettiki spokesman David Thomas said the report gave a slanted view of the corporation’s onetime violation.
Thomas attributed the coal company’s violation to an unusual malfunction in the ultraviolet-light system that detects fecal discharge. He said most of the polluted water was caught in control basins before it got near the Youghiogheny River.
“There was no adverse effect on human health,” Thomas said, adding that companies must report even minor violations to the EPA — which Mettiki did in this case. Thomas said the infraction was minor enough that the EPA did not fine the company.
To Brad Heavner of MaryPIRG, that lack of punishment is the problem.
“There are some places in the report where there are one-time spikes (of water pollution) . . . and sometimes that does get dealt with,” Heavner said. “But there are other cases where there are other violations that don’t get dealt with strictly enough.”
But Thomas said that while the public has a right to know about incidents like the discharge at Mettiki, it should know the whole story instead of obscure statistics that are not placed in context — which he said the MaryPIRG report does.
“It’s one thing to raise your effluent levels and it’s another thing to pose a threat to human health,” he said.
Compared to the rest of the nation, Maryland did not do too badly. The U.S.PIRG report said that 60 percent of U.S. facilities violated clean-water standards in the 18-month period, and those facilities exceeded their limits by an average of more than 600 percent.
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