Maryland to Revisit Erosion, Sediment Controls

Twelve Maryland Waterkeeper organizations and the Waterkeeper Alliance, represented by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, recently reached an agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) resolving the Waterkeepers' legal challenge to the agency's general stormwater permit for construction sites.

As a result of this agreement, MDE has committed to making significant changes to the way it requires developers to prevent polluted runoff caused when rain washes sediment and other pollutants from these exposed areas.

More than 90 of Maryland’s streams and rivers have been officially designated as “impaired” by excessive sediment. In fact, MDE has identified runoff from urban areas, including construction sites, as the largest source of nutrient pollution in the lower western shore of Maryland. Population trends will compound the problems created by stormwater runoff from construction sites as more than a million more people are expected to move to the Bay watershed during this decade alone. The state had at least 2,000 building permits per square mile from 1990-2004, significantly more than most other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Choptank Riverkeeper Drew Koslow, who served as an expert witness in the litigation, has seen these impacts first hand: “Sediment-laden runoff from construction sites can drastically alter the ability of a stream to support life. This mud prevents sunlight from reaching diminishing submerged aquatic grasses, smothers oyster reefs, and severely stresses fish.”

The settlement requires MDE to update the state's erosion and sediment control standards no later than May 2010. These standards specify measures that must be taken on construction sites to prevent water pollution. The standards, more than 15 years old, are outdated and provide inadequate protection for the Bay and its tributaries. MDE has committed to incorporate provisions that emphasize up-to-date measures to prevent erosion and sediment-laden runoff from the exposed soils of construction sites.

The agency also committed to incorporating into its General Permit any specific effluent limits issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, applicable to construction stormwater. The agreement requires MDE to set procedures that ensure expanded opportunities for the public to review and comment upon stormwater planning documents for construction sites.

Finally, the agreement provides for improved protection of waterbodies already over-burdened by sediment by requiring large construction sites in these specific waterbodies to apply for individual permits.

In describing the settlement, Jane F. Barrett, director of the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, a service of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, stated, “Strong, clear, and enforceable permits are critical to any effort to preserve the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries because permits are the building blocks of the Clean Water Act. This agreement is an important step in the right direction.”

Taken together, MDE's commitments to improve its construction stormwater permitting program will result in real, measureable improvements in water quality throughout the state. Better steps to control runoff from construction will help the state meet its commitments to reduce pollution to the Bay.