New Program Hopes To Keep Run-Off Out Of Waterways

OCEAN CITY – Dirt run-off from construction sites can cause serious problems for local waters and a new “Get the Dirt Out” program aims to remedy that.

“Get the Dirt Out” is the brainchild of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, a coalition of 14 Waterkeeper programs from around the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coastal Bays region.

“Sediment finding its way to our state waters, it’s against the law,” said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips at a press conference in Ocean City this week to announce the program.

Volunteer monitors will be the heart of the initiative, reporting sediment run-off problems like improperly installed silt fence and under-graveled construction exits to a central database.

“We will train our citizen monitors to at least the level of the State of Maryland does for the responsible person on the construction sites,” Phillips said.

The state requires construction sites to provide a “responsible person” who is tasked with monitoring and fixing sediment control measures on site.

“Nine times out of 10 that’s way down on the to do list for a lot of these sites. They’re trying to do as much as they can for as little as they can,” Phillips said.

Improper installation of the ubiquitous black silt fences edging construction sites is often the culprit when sediment escapes a construction site.

“That’s supposed to be buried eight inches deep,” Phillips said. “Most construction sites, they put it up and scrape a few inches of dirt up. That’s not going to hold back water.”

The volunteer monitors will carry a laminated field guide with examples of good and bad practices and situations and will grade 10 aspects of the site, including the construction exit, sediment barriers, traps and filters and the presence of dirt on the pavement.

Monitors will not enter private property, instead making observations and taking photographs from public roads and sidewalks bordering a construction site.

Observations will be uploaded to a regional website, and if the problems are not remedied, the Coastkeeper will file a complaint with Maryland Department of the Environment’s (MDE) compliance office.

Phillips said that she would use the Public Information Act if necessary to make certain that MDE follows up on complaints.

If the sediment run-off problems continue after the state compliance officer becomes involved, Phillips said a 60-day letter would be sent, informing the builder of the organization’s intent to sue over the violations of the Clean Water Act if the issues are not remedied. The Clean Water Act specifically reserves the right to sue over water quality problems to citizens.

“One benefit of the Waterkeeper [Get the Dirt Out] program is we’re concerned private citizens. We’re not government agents. We’re not funded by the government,” Phillips said. “We’re able to maintain that citizen advocate label.”

Citizens already assist the Coastkeeper’s efforts to monitor and improve the health of county waterways. A citizen alerted the first local Coastkeeper, Jay Charland, to a sediment run-off problem in Gray’s Creek a few years ago. That situation has improved, but the problem is ongoing.

Phillips has received photographs from citizens of construction site dirt washing into Ocean City’s storm drains, which lead directly to the Isle of Wight Bay.

“When they see something happening to the water that isn’t right, who do you call? You call the Coastkeeper,” said Phillips.

Raising awareness among the public through the Get the Dirt Out initiative will put pressure on builders to comply, she said.

“It’ll get the public more involved in feeling like the stewards of their local environment,” Phillips said.

The program is not a one-sided effort. Phillips will work with developers and builders on meeting the state sediment control regulations and will speak to local builders’ groups about keeping the dirt on land and out of the water.

“We are hoping this will apply pressure on the state level too,” said Phillips.

Enforcement of stormwater and run-off violations is largely a state affair, but MDE has only one compliance officer for the entire Lower Eastern Shore.

Ocean City has no enforcement options on dirt run-off except assessing a $25 littering fine.

“What we’re dealing with is just another source of pollution to our coastal bays,” Phillips said.

Sediment clouds water and kills sea grasses, which shelter young crabs and fish. Dirt can also bring chemicals into the water and nutrients like phosphorous.

The risk of flooding increases as waterways have less room to accommodate rain and snow melt. Gray’s Creek became so silted up from dirt run-off that it was unnavigable, according to Phillips.

“We don’t have any dead spots here yet. We’d like to keep it that way,” Phillips said.