State Waterkeepers, MDE Settle Runoff Lawsuit

SNOW HILL – New sediment runoff rules must be in place by 2010, according to the recent settlement of a lawsuit against the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).

Twelve Maryland Waterkeeper programs, including the Assateague Coastkeeper through the Assateague Coastal Trust, and the Waterkeeper Alliance brought the lawsuit against MDE over weak stormwater permit standards for construction sites. The waterkeepers were represented by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic.

The settlement requires MDE to strengthen sediment and erosion control regulations by May 2010.

The current standards were established over 15 years ago and are inadequate, waterkeepers say.

The new standards will include up-to-date methods to forestall erosion and prevent sediment runoff from construction sites. The agreement also calls for MDE to include specific runoff limits in permits as applicable and to increase public review opportunities for construction site stormwater management plans.

Jane F. Barrett, director of the environmental law clinic, called the settlement “an important step in the right direction.”

Major construction sites on impaired waters will also be required to submit individual stormwater management plans under the settlement.

“While sediment pollution is not as high a priority issue in the coastal bays watershed as is nutrient pollution from stormwater runoff, the strengthened permit will certainly protect the quality of our waterways here in Worcester County,” said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips.

Most of the Waterkeepers involved in the lawsuit work in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where sediment runoff is a bigger problem. Over 90 Maryland rivers and streams are officially tagged  “impaired” by sediment runoff, according to the waterkeepers.

“Dirt is literally choking our waterways,” said Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper Eliza Smith Steinmeier.

Urban sediment runoff, which includes construction site dirt, is considered the largest nutrient pollution source in the lower western shore, according to MDE.

“Sediment-laden runoff from construction sites can drastically alter the ability of a stream to support life. This mud prevents sunlight from reaching diminishing submerged aquatic grasses, smothers oyster reefs and severely stresses fish,” said Choptank Riverkeeper Drew Koslow.

The same issues can harm the coastal bays, according to Phillips.

“Land development in the coastal bays watershed can be a major contributor to sediment laden stormwater runoff and the county’s proposed new zoning could place a great deal of that development near our shorelines,” said Phillips. “Construction projects within Ocean City discharge sediment laden runoff to paved streets and into stormwater inlets that drain directly into the coastal bays. The coastal bays tourism industry depends on swimable and fishable waterways which must be protected from sediment erosion pollution.”

Research cited by the waterkeepers shows that commercial and residential development in Maryland, converting farms and forests to developed space, will increase over 60 percent by 2030.

“Dirt from construction sites carries with it other pollution such as nutrients and chemicals,” said Steinmeier. “This agreement ensures improvements in construction practices that will directly result in improved water quality in our streams and rivers.”