Going Too Easy on Chesapeake Bay Polluters?

November 2012 / Abell Reports / Environment

Why Maryland should step up its use of criminal prosecution to deter pollution.

The crown jewel of Maryland’s natural resource heritage, the Chesapeake Bay, has nearly the entire state within its watershed. It is a rich source of economic and aesthetic wealth for the state, supporting fishing, tourism, recreation, and more than a few restaurants serving crabs on paper tablecloths to mallet-wielding customers.

Unfortunately, because of pollution from industry, urban development, agriculture, and other sources, the health of the Bay is tenuous—albeit improved from its condition in the 1980s, but still far short of healthy.

In many ways, the past quarter-century’s worth of restoration efforts have largely squandered time, energy, and resources on strategies that focused on cooperation but not accountability, and thus ultimately
proved ineffective. In Maryland, a particular failing of the approach has been the state’s over-reliance on enforcement mechanisms too weak to deter polluters.

A new report from the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) finds that as Maryland enforces its water pollution laws, it is relying chiefly on civil or administrative actions, while only occasionally using available criminal statutes. Civil and administrative actions can result in fines against polluting companies or utilities. Criminal laws, on the other hand, can be used to send malefactors to prison, or to impose extensive probationary periods, license suspensions, or debarment—prohibiting companies from pursuing government contracts for some period of time.

For obvious reasons, the prospect of going to jail and gaining a criminal record has a higher deterrence value than the threat of monetary civil penalties, which are often factored into the cost of doing business.

As Maryland and the other Bay states embark on a new initiative to protect the Bay, one put in motion by Obama’s Chesapeake Executive Order, it is important that all enforcement tools be both available and used. To find out if Maryland—the state in the Bay region with the strongest environmental reputation—was doing all it could to enforce existing law, CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor and Policy Analyst Aimee Simpson took a close look at its enforcement record to date, focusing in on the frequency of criminal enforcement.