December 2, 2011

Harsh audit of Department of Environment finds questionable septic grants, lack of inspections

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Maryland Department of Environment logoAuditors found serious problems at the Maryland Department of the Environment, including questionable grants paid out of the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, failure to do required safety screenings and construction site inspections and undisclosed computer system issues.

The problems are detailed in a 41-page report released Thursday by the Office of Legislative Audits.

In his written response, Department of the Environment Secretary Robert Summers concurs with some of the findings and disagrees with others, but pledges to review policy issues brought up in the audit and make appropriate changes.

While the lengthy report may appear to be damning, department spokesman Jay Apperson said that the report is just picking out administrative policies that auditors recommend the department “fine tune and improve.”

“Overall, I think that our work to protect the environment and public health stood up to scrutiny,” Apperson said.

Bay Restoration Fund grants questioned

The department oversees the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, which gets the annual $30 flush tax from households with sewage and septic systems. The money is used to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and grants to upgrade septic systems.

There are no regulations further defining what kinds of projects can get grants, and auditors found several projects that they questioned. A $300,000 wastewater treatment plant upgrade project was funded with money from septic system upgrades, and three grants worth $59,400 were given for septic system replacements on land that had no structures.

Apperson said that the department felt that the original law gave enough explanation of the program that no additional regulations were necessary, and that counties provided adequate oversight of the grants. However, in light of legislative changes made to the program, the department is considering adding regulations.

Safety checks of hazardous materials not done

Auditors found that different public safety checks the department is responsible for were done inadequately, or not at all.

The department is responsible for ensuring that materials that deal with hazardous materials follow state safety standards. This means that they collect reports from each facility analyzing their use and safety processes for hazardous materials, but they also are responsible for auditing them through inspections or other investigations.

Auditors found that no audits had been done between September 2006 and October 2010 – even though 36 facilities turned in their analysis reports. The department told auditors they did not have the experience necessary to perform the checks, and the Maryland State Police – which worked with the agency to perform them – had made the audits a low priority.

Apperson pointed out that the state law is actually closely mirrored by a federal law, which requires U.S. Department of Homeland Security inspections for certain facilities using hazardous chemicals. The department is working on finding out which facilities will be inspected by the federal government, and will contract out the remaining audit inspections, he said.

Lack of construction site inspections

The department is also supposed to make sure that large construction sites are following erosion control plans by visiting the sites every two weeks.  In fiscal year 2010, there were 2,213 inspections performed, resulting in 73 significant violations and about $795,000 in penalty funds collected. However, this represents only about 17% of the sites that should have been inspected.

The department responded that it does not have the resources to conduct bimonthly inspections of all sites, and inspect sites based on complaints. Auditors recommended that the department either conduct more inspections, work with the General Assembly to get more money to do it, or get the wording of the law changed to reflect the way inspections are currently done.

Landlords who own rental units containing lead paint – 71,231 units in Maryland, the audit states – are required to register those units with the department each year. However, auditors found that the department had no way of checking to make sure that property owners kept up on their registration. There were 3,000 landlords who registered lead paint-containing units in 2008, but did not register the units in 2009 or 2010, the report states. The department also did not make sure that they properly recorded certifications from rental units without lead paint, or that the one-time fees they paid to the department were actually collected.

Undisclosed computer issues

In 2004, the department awarded a $6.4 million contract to consolidate about 170 databases and computer applications into a new enterprise environmental management system. A total of 32 programs were supposed to be integrated into the new system, but by October 2009, only 12 programs had been fully implemented.

The department pledged to give an annual report detailing use of the system – but auditors found that the department’s 2010 report was lacking. They looked at the department’s use of the system in several programs, and found many of those departments still using the old systems to keep records. Additionally, no programs used the system to keep track of compliance and violations.

Reported cost of all contracts associated with the system was $7.3 million, but the audit states that the actual cost was $7.8 million.

Summers registeredhis opposition to this finding. The enterprise data management system, he wrote, was “overpromised and underfunded” in 2004.  Apperson said that department officials believe they have adequately reported spending and status dealing with the system.

Procurement and other issues

Auditors found several other policy problems. These include:
·      A flawed procurement system that may have allowed two contractors to receive $400,000 through deceptive measures. Last year, the procurement method was completely changed so this sort of situation could not happen. However, auditors have referred the two contractors’ situation to the criminal division of the Attorney General’s office for further investigation.
·      Paying a former employee $224,950 in consulting contracts, which started right after that employee left and appear to have been written specifically for the former employee. The department terminated all contracts with the employee, and referred the situation to the State Ethics Commission.
·      Major actions on the computer database were not logged, there was inadequate password control for employee access to the system, and the department did not have a technology recovery plan in case of disaster.

  • Anonymous

    You can spin this information anyway you want. It still smells of waste & corruption while the talking heads in Annapolis want a massive increase in the flush tax!  Until the people of MD get true representative governing, these snippets of exactly where & how our precious tax dollars are being spent will continue to emerge & stink worse than an overflowing septic tank!