'Severe' understaffing could make Maryland drinking water unsafe, says AG Maryland needs three times the staff to adequately inspect drinking water systems in the state, according to an EPA-funded analysis.
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'Severe' understaffing could make Maryland drinking water unsafe, says AG

Maryland doesn't have enough staff to ensure the drinking water is safe, according to AG Brian Frosh. Sang Tan/AP Photo hide caption

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Sang Tan/AP Photo

The Maryland agency tasked with overseeing public drinking water for more than 5.7 million people in the state needs nearly three times the staff and twice the budget to able to ensure that drinking water is safe, according to an analysis commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) wrote a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) demanding the governor shore up the drinking water program.

"Maryland's drinking water remains at risk," wrote Frosh. "This threat to the public health should not continue one more day."

The analysis, conducted by the consultant group Cadmus, under contract with the EPA, found a "severe gap" between the resources currently available to Maryland's water supply program, and the resources it needs to adequately ensure safe drinking water. The analysis found that the program's "ability to protect public health is compromised."

"You don't have to look far to see what can go wrong," said Frosh in an interview with DCist, pointing to the example of Flint, Mich., where lack of investment and oversight of an aging water system lead to a crisis of dangerously high levels of lead. "We're not suggesting that we're facing that situation at the moment, but we are suggesting that we don't know what the health of our drinking water systems looks like across our state," Frosh said.

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Jay Apperson, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment, which operates the water supply program, said in an email that the department "has been working closely with EPA and others over the last several months to address potential concerns about staffing levels."

Apperson said the attorney general's letter was an attempt "politicize the matter," and said state programs "continue to deliver safe and sustainable water to Marylanders." He declined an interview request. Gov. Hogan's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Frosh denied that he was writing to the governor out of any political motivation. "I don't think safe drinking water is a political issue. I think it's a health issue, and I think that our office would be ignoring its responsibility if we became aware of the situation and did nothing."

Frosh announced in October that he plans to retire, and will not seek reelection, after two terms as attorney general and more than three decades in public office.

The EPA analysis found that Maryland risks a federal takeover of drinking water oversight in the state, if it can't fix the understaffing and underfunding problems. Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA delegates enforcement of drinking water standards to states, but only if the states can meet or surpass a list of requirements. In the past, Maryland was a national leader, according to the analysis; the state had "a robust drinking water program and was able to go above and beyond the minimum federal requirements." Now, however, Maryland may not be able to meet minimum requirements, due to years of disinvestment in the drinking water program.

Currently, Maryland has 71 staff positions dedicated to the program, but 38 percent are vacant. Even if those positions were filled immediately, the program would still need 55 more workers to adequately do its job, according to the analysis. The analysis also found the program's $8.1 million budget is insufficient — it needs $15.7 million. In addition Maryland over-relies on federal funds: only 12% of the current program budget comes from state funds, with 88% coming from the feds; nationally, states fund 42% of their drinking water programs, on average.

The problem has been exacerbated by increased demands and workload on the program — at the same time staffing levels have dwindled, new regulations and new drinking water systems in the state have meant staff have to work extra hours and de-prioritize some areas of work. According to the analysis, those de-prioritized areas include source water protection, water conservation, water security and emergency response, research, and climate change.

The analysis calls this a "more with less" strategy, noting, "this is not a sustainable approach."

According to the EPA's most recent annual review of Maryland's drinking water program, inspectors in Maryland have 3.5 times the workload compared to the national average. Maryland's inspectors are each responsible for surveying 240 drinking water systems, while the national average is 67.

Among the EPA's recommendations to Maryland, the state should establish "a lower public water system to field staff ratio" (in other words, hire more inspectors). The EPA also requested the state submit a plan to address staffing and funding gaps for federal review and approval no later than October 2021.

"That date has now passed," notes Frosh in his letter to Hogan. "If you have a plan, the people of Maryland deserve to know what it is."

The Cadmus analysis was released last spring, but Frosh says it only recently came to his attention. And he admits he has limited power to do anything about the problem. "Our hope is that by putting this out in the public eye, it will generate the action that needs to be taken to protect our drinking water."

The analysis by Cadmus suggests one relatively painless way to boost the budget of the water supply program: user fees. A fee of just $1.50 per person per year would be enough to support the additional staff needed. Neighboring states Virginia and Pennsylvania already impose such fees.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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