By Timothy B. Wheeler
A Baltimore metal recycling business has agreed to pay a $50,000 penalty and upgrade stormwater pollution controls at its facility near the harbor to settle a string of alleged violations first discovered by Maryland regulators nearly two years ago.
In a settlement agreement released Thursday, Baltimore Scrap Corp. pledged to submit a “site improvement plan” within 60 days for reducing polluted runoff from its scrapyard.
The company also agreed to conduct more rigorous and more frequent testing of runoff entering storm drains there and to pay further penalties ranging up to $2,750 for each time excessive levels of certain potentially toxic pollutants are detected.
The pact, reached with the Maryland Department of the Environment and Blue Water Baltimore, comes nearly a year after the watershed watchdog group filed a notice of intent to sue the company, and nearly two years after MDE inspectors first cited it for a series of stormwater violations. (See earlier story here.)
Settlement first of its kind
The settlement, the first of its kind in Maryland, was hailed by environmental advocates, who said they hoped state regulators would use the case as a blueprint for further enforcement of stormwater pollution violations at other industrial sites.
“The elevated levels of toxic contaminants we saw in water quality tests from this site are a concern for people’s health and that of our ecosystem,” Angela Haren, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and director of advocacy at Blue Water Baltimore, said in a statement announcing the settlement.
Stormwater runoff from such industrial sites often contains toxic contaminants such as copper, aluminum, zinc and lead, exposure to which can be harmful to fish or people.
“This is a good outcome for the environment and a strong signal to all that industrial stormwater violations will not be tolerated,” Ben Grumbles, the state secretary of the environment, said in a statement.
Acting on a tip from the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group that represented Blue Water Baltimore in the case, MDE inspectors visited Baltimore Scrap in March 2016. They wrote up the company then for multiple violations after seeing sediment, oil and possibly other contaminants washing off the cluttered, debris-strewn site into storm drains that eventually reach the Patapsco River across from Fort McHenry.
Follow-up inspections in ensuing months found new and continuing violations, according to MDE documents obtained under the Maryland Public Information Act.
The settlement says that the company has taken steps to carry out “best management practices” for controlling polluted runoff from the scrap yard, and continues to take more. But MDE and Blue Water Baltimore contend that still more needs to be done to reduce pollutant levels in the stormwater leaving the site.
Company declines comment but installs new equipment
David Simon, president of Baltimore Scrap, declined to comment or answer questions about the settlement. In an email, he said that the Bay Journal’s prior articles about the case “are not balanced and contain untrue representations that are hurtful to our company.” He did not elaborate. (The Bay Journal made repeated, unsuccessful efforts to communicate with Simon and the company’s lawyer.)
The agreement includes an enforceable schedule for the construction and maintenance of stormwater pollution controls to minimize the amount of toxic metals and other contaminants in the scrapyard’s stormwater discharges. The specific actions aren’t spelled out, and neither Haren nor Mary Greene, deputy director of the Environmental Integrity Project, would say what kinds of additional controls have been discussed during private negotiations with company representatives.
But MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said that according to the company, it has spent about $300,000 so far on improvements, including a device to separate oil from stormwater. The company has told MDE it expects to have spent more than $600,000 in all when additional improvements are completed. The most important of those is a membrane system for filtering pollutants from stormwater runoff, Apperson said.
“We appreciate the commitments that Baltimore Scrap has made in this settlement, and their willingness to find solutions to comply with the Clean Water Act,” Haren said. “Our agreement lays a clear path for improvements to the site’s stormwater management so that its stormwater is properly treated and does not contaminate the harbor.”
Haren and Sylvia Lam, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, noted that the settlement imposes stricter requirements on Baltimore Scrap than the MDE currently requires of other similarly regulated facilities. In a statement, Lam pointed to the agreement’s enforceable deadlines for action, increased monitoring requirements and stipulated penalties for continuing pollution exceedances.
The company is one of more than 900 industrial facilities across the state where stormwater runoff is regulated under a “general permit,” a standardized permit issued for certain categories of dischargers. As the phrase suggests, its requirements are less specific and often less stringent than what industrial facilities would have to do if their activities are controlled by an individual pollution discharge permit.
Concerns about general permits
A November report by the Center for Progressive Reform and the Environmental Integrity Project alleged that more than one third of the industrial facilities covered by the general permit that reported discharges from 2014 to March of this year exceeded pollution limits for potentially harmful chemicals.
“Obviously, we can’t expect watershed groups to go through the lengthy process to come up with a settlement on every permit violation,” said Evan Isaacson, an analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform, a pro-regulation Washington think tank. “Overall, we have to have the state step up and take a greater role in enforcing laws that protect people and communities from all the toxic chemicals in runoff from industrial stormwater.” But in addition to more vigilant enforcement, he added, “We’re going to need a better permit.”
Apperson, the MDE spokesman, said the settlement marked the first formal enforcement action the state had taken against any company covered under the general permit, though it had levied fines against some previously.
Environmental groups have criticized Maryland’s general stormwater permit, saying it is not stringent enough.
“The agreement that we’ve hammered out here really lays a framework for future enforcement and for Maryland’s general permit,” Haren said in an interview.
Apperson defended MDE’s general permit, saying the one issued in 2013 was the first major upgrade since the early 2000s. Regulators are starting work on renewing the industrial stormwater permit in 2018, he said, and will seek public input and review the latest regulatory practices of other states in the process.
“Our goal is to make each iteration of a permit an even more effective tool to protect the environment,” the MDE spokesman said.