Scrap metal left out in the elements can leach toxic metals that flow in rain runoff to waterways. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A share of Maryland’s stormwater pollution problem comes from unchecked, sky-high amounts of toxic yuck washed away from Baltimore’s industrial junkyards, landfills and businesses, according to some new investigative research from two nonprofit groups.

Industrial stormwater creates serious toxic runoff that includes lead, copper, zinc and aluminum — metals linked to negative health outcomes for humans and known to kill aquatic life. Even worse, these metals settle in our local waters and stick around for many years.

Half of Maryland’s Industrial Sites Pollute Above Approved Limits

The Environmental Integrity Project and Center for Progressive Reform, both nonprofits based in Washington D.C., took a deep dive into Maryland’s official industrial stormwater reporting, analyzing the 228 sites that were required to report their pollution stats to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) between January 2014 and March 2017.

The conclusion, published in the comprehensive Toxic Runoff from Maryland Industry report: Toxic pollution generated from half of Maryland’s industrial sites is out of control.

Among their findings:

  • Fourteen percent of sites were “reporting-no-shows,” meaning they sent MDE no test results.
  • Thirty-six percent reported toxic runoff levels exceeding legal limits.
  • Only about half of the sites reported pollution levels within the approved limits.

“These industrial polluters are breaking the law and getting away with it because the Maryland Department of the Environment’s enforcement is sadly inadequate,” said David Flores, policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform and co-author of the report, in a statement.

Actual stormwater results from a sample of Baltimore industrial sites. That’s just gross. Still sourced from Toxic Runoff from Maryland Industry report.

An Intro to Toxic Yuck

Stormwater pollution is the grimy part of our modern life that gets washed away during rainstorms directly into our waterways. Though we often think of it as the litter and dirt on roads and sidewalks, the same toxic mess is also washed off industrial sites such as metal junkyards, auto yards, landfills and recycling facilities.

Though many of the Chesapeake Bay’s contaminant levels have steadily dropped since 1985, stormwater pollution is the only one that continues to rise.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, 900 Maryland industrial sites are required to test and report their industrial stormwater pollution levels to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). Eleven percent, or roughly 102, of these sites exist in Baltimore alone.

The industrial stormwater permitting process is designed to limit toxic pollution from various materials: rotting metals left outside that can leach iron, zinc and copper; old car batteries that can leak toxic metals; iron and dissolved solids that come from from our trash landfills; the list goes on.

Marylanders have become much smarter about stormwater pollution in recent years. Gov. Hogan is partly to thank, as his key campaign hammer was eliminating the stormwater clean up fee, or as he dubbed it, the “rain tax.” Residents of many Maryland counties are no longer required to pay the stormwater, though it’s still a mandate for living in Baltimore City, Prince George’s County, Howard County, Montgomery County and Anne Arundel County.

Environmental Injustice

Sadly, co-mingled industrial and residential zoning is not distributed equitably in Maryland. According to the Environmental Integrity Project’s analysis, just one percent of census tracts in our state — heavily concentrated in parts of Baltimore — hold 16 percent of all permitted industrial stormwater sites. Meanwhile, most census tracts across Maryland contain no industrial sites.

Illustrated below, South and Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods are hit especially hard, with heavy industry residing within those areas. The report says that within Maryland, East Baltimore neighborhoods rank in the 95th percentile for proximity to hazardous waste, facilities with extremely hazardous substances and wastewater discharges.

Eleven percent of Maryland’s industrial sites are located within Baltimore City.
Eleven percent of Maryland’s industrial sites are located within Baltimore City.
Baltimore neighborhoods (in blue) reside next to industrial zones (in red). Yellow dots indicate industrial sites. The red dots are sites out that are out of compliance and pollute above industrial stormwater legal limits.

Runoff from industrial toxic metals has been proven to be unhealthy. Lead is a known neurotoxin for children who are most susceptible to negative health outcomes. Copper kills aquatic life.

And yet, drive through Baltimore on a given weekend and you’ll see citizens fishing from and boating on waterways tainted by excessive industrial stormwater. Added to those risks, many of these toxic metals don’t dissolve and dilute, but instead fall into local waterway sediment, where they remain for a long time.

The fix?

The report offers a suite of solutions, starting first with the governor making industrial stormwater permitting a budget priority. Since 1997, the MDE industrial stormwater budget has shrunk considerably; today, Maryland has a third as many Water and Science Administration inspectors as it did then. The authors maintain that Maryland’s industrial stormwater permit process is weak, and lacks the enforcement teeth needed to force offenders to remedy high pollution levels.

Asked to weigh in on the new findings, Maryland Environmental Secretary Ben Grumbles defended the state’s checks on stormwater pollution.

“Maryland’s general discharge permit for industrial stormwater, issued in 2013, is modeled after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s national stormwater permit and includes numeric ‘benchmarks’ to determine pollutant concentrations in runoff at the edge of a site,” he wrote in an email. “Failing to meet a permit benchmark is not in itself a permit violation, and it does not necessarily show amounts of pollution that might reach the Chesapeake Bay or other waters and violate water quality standards.”

Grumbles also said the benchmarks are useful to show whether control measures for stormwater are effective, and to help the state focus on those sites exceed benchmarks to make sure they’re changing how they control runoff.
He also said inspections are on the rise: “MDE has increased the number of industrial stormwater inspections performed each year since 2014.”
However, Grumbles did note that “activities at the sites highlighted in the report could still be subject to enforcement action.”

Maryland’s industrial stormwater permitting process is up for a state-level review in 2018.  Safeguarding Maryland’s neighborhoods, waterways and citizens from industrial stormwater toxic pollution is critical. Pollution needs to fall by the next review if Maryland wants to maintain its current process. Otherwise, it’s our burden to bear.

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Laurel Peltier

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.