Author: Hunter Savery and Jon Hunter Published: 5/15/2023  

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (left) speaks during a June 9 press briefing to announce the state's long-term plan to battle COVID-19. Joining Hogan (from left) are state Health Secretary Dennis Schrader; Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s deputy health secretary for public health services; and Dr. Howard Haft, executive director of the Maryland Primary Care Program. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (left) speaks during a June 9 press briefing to announce the state’s long-term plan to battle COVID-19. Joining Hogan (from left) are state Health Secretary Dennis Schrader; Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s deputy health secretary for public health services; and Dr. Howard Haft, executive director of the Maryland Primary Care Program. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

Funding cuts and staffing shortages at the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) over the past decade have coincided with a decline in the state’s ecological health.

MDE’s water-related enforcement actions and identification of major polluters plummeted during former Gov. Larry Hogan’s time in office. During this same period, water quality standards in the Chesapeake Bay declined significantly, falling to the same levels as those observed in the early 1990s, according to data from Chesapeake Progress.

Over two decades, MDE lost one out of every seven employees and those positions went unfilled as environmental challenges increased.

The Maryland Department of the Environment’s funding is among the lowest in the Chesapeake watershed area. Only West Virginia’s environmental department received a smaller portion of its state’s general fund.

“What we saw in 2021 and in prior years was just a really dramatic cut-off (in resources) and Hogan’s initiatives to make sure that state agencies weren’t fully enforcing the law,” Katlynn Schmitt, a senior analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, told Capital News Service. She is one of the authors of the 2022 Chesapeake Accountability Project scorecard – an evaluation of “water-related enforcement trends over the last two decades,” according to its website.

Ben Grumbles, Secretary of the Environment under Hogan from 2015 until March 2022, disputed allegations of lax water quality enforcement.

“The administration absolutely put an emphasis on compliance and enforcement,” he said. 

“We imposed and recovered many record-setting penalties. We also had to deal with COVID — we were not able to have on-site inspections because they put our employees at risk.”

“When you get much below 1% (funding), that’s when you start to see a lot of pollution problems. … It kind of sends a signal to polluters that you’re not going to get caught,” said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

More than 18 million people live within the Chesapeake watershed and over 3,600 species of plants and animals call the bay home. The bay is an integral part of the regional economy, providing upwards of 500 million pounds of seafood each year. However, commercial fishery stocks in the region have plummeted in recent years.

The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, and its watershed encompasses six states and the District of Columbia. Among these, Maryland provided its environmental protection agency with one of the lowest funding levels in 2020. Only West Virginia allocated a smaller percentage of its general fund to its environmental department.

This low funding has observable results. The 2022 CAP scorecard said that “there has been a dramatic decline in the number of enforcement actions taken by the Water & Science

Administration (WSA) (a subsidiary of MDE), the number of sites inspected, and the number of significant violations identified involving environmental or health impacts.”

Although the scorecard says that the MDE situation has been degrading since the early 2000s, many of the identified changes became more severe during Hogan’s tenure, beginning in 2015.