Whether it’s noticing something wrong with drinking water coming from the tap at home, seeing an algae bloom during a swim in the Chesapeake, or realizing you’re getting fewer bites during an afternoon fishing on the Potomac, citizens are often the first to witness changes in water quality and pollution.
These changes can have profound effects on all of us – our recreation, our health, and even our economy. It stands to reason that citizens should have the right to pursue legal action to make sure our local waterways remain safe for all.
A bill we are sponsoring in the 2021 General Assembly would ensure us that right.
Unfortunately, right now in Maryland, citizens can’t intervene in a lawsuit brought by the state. A decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has made it essentially impossible for environmental groups and other citizens to intervene. Yet as budgets decrease and government oversight is reduced, citizen enforcement of environmental law is more necessary than ever.
Moreover, political considerations — including interstate competition and pressure from industry to minimize regulation — threaten to further compromise states’ ability to enforce the laws.
Maryland wouldn’t be alone in passing a bill like this – eight other states have used legislation to allow for citizen intervention as a right, ensuring that that public participation is provided for in the courts.
There’s a federal precedent for this, too. The Clean Water Act includes what are known as “citizen lawsuit” provisions – which are included in every major environmental law – to empower citizens to sue violators of the Clean Water Act in federal court.
Congress intended citizen suits to supplement government action, when underfunded or overworked agencies could not ensure that all laws are complied with. After all, environmental statutes are only effective to the extent that such laws are enforced. Any standard set by statute or regulation, if not enforced, is only a recommendation.
Marylanders overwhelmingly support clean water protections and agree we need more protection for clean water, not less. That is why we are sponsoring the bill to ensure citizens have the right to legally intervene (participate) in matters of water quality and pollution, as was originally intended by the Clean Water Act.
Clean water is essential for the health and sustainability of our families, communities, and environment. Lest we forget — we all live downstream. We have a responsibility to control pollution at its source and protect the drinking water sources of all residents.
Clean water is also an economic necessity. In 2012, Chesapeake Bay fisheries contributed over $2 billion and 41,000 local jobs to the Maryland and Virginia economies. All of these uses become restricted when our waters are polluted.
Maryland’s economy, our drinking water, and our rivers are all inextricably linked. We need to hold everyone accountable for their cleanliness. Citizens may be the first to notice when something is wrong – and they should have the right to demand change when it is needed.
Sen. Jill P. Carter represents District 41 in Baltimore County. Del. Sara Love represents District 16 in Montgomery County.