[photo, Montgomery Park Business Center, 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore, Maryland]
  • Water Quality
  • Air Quality
  • Department of the Environment
  • Montgomery Park Business Center, 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore, Maryland, February 2004. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

    Origins of the Department of the Environment began with Maryland's response to environmental threats to the oyster industry and to public health. Consequently, efforts were divided between State health and conservation agencies. Moreover, since pollution of water resources was apparent long before the invisible and insidious effects of air pollution were recognized, more State initiatives focused on water quality. Finally, because air and water freely move across boundaries drawn by man, work to maintain their quality is necessarily interjurisdictional. With interstate cooperation, Maryland environmental programs frequently have been shaped by federal mandates and funding.

    Water Quality. Abundant rivers and streams supplied plentiful water and absorbed the wastes produced in colonial Maryland. Later, attention focused on the siltation of harbors, the condition of fisheries, and public health. The decline of shad and herring in the early 1800s was attributed to ships' wakes, dams, sedimentation, and land-clearing practices, yet by midcentury fishermen observed fish avoiding waters fouled by floating wastes. Unlike modern toxic chemicals, this debris was likely to be organic, a byproduct of small local industries, such as canneries, slaughterhouses, sawmills, or tanneries. In the contamination of water supplies, citizens became alarmed by the visible pollution of floating carcasses or sewage.

    In Maryland, an early prohibition against contaminating a municipal water supply is found in legislation incorporating the Baltimore Water Company in 1808. Anyone willfully polluting a certain section of Jones Falls by "throwing any dead animals, or other impure substances, into the same, or by swimming, bathing, or washing clothes or the skins of any dead animals or other impure things therein, or by erecting any necessary or other nuisance so near the said water as to pollute the same . . . " was subject to a fine (Chapter 79, Acts of 1808). In 1874, throwing bodies or carcasses into the Potomac River, which supplied water to many Maryland communities as well as Washington, DC, was outlawed (Chapter 355, Acts of 1874). Though the law gave half the fine to the informer, enforcement was difficult. By 1886, it became a misdemeanor to pollute a drinking water supply anywhere in the State, subject to a fine and additional fines for each day the offense continued (Chapter 6, Acts of 1886). This statute also covered industrial pollution from factories, trades' establishments, slaughter-houses, and tanneries. It gave some authority to the State Board of Health which at the time undoubtedly lacked the resources for statewide action.

    The first Maryland agency responsible for water quality was the State Board of Health, precursor of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Created in 1874, the Board was to "make sanitary investigations and inquiries respecting the causes of diseases, especially of epidemics, the source of mortality and the effects of localities, employments, conditions, and circumstances on the public health . . . " (Chapter 200, Acts of 1874).

    For most of the nineteenth century, the airborne theory of disease prevailed. To prevent epidemics, cities and towns drained swamps and low-lying areas where stagnant waters gave off noxious fumes. The odoriferous Baltimore harbor and surroundings had long been recognized as unhealthful; though some drainage reduced breeding grounds for mosquitoes, epidemics continued. Despite sewerage commissions in 1862, 1883, and 1893, Baltimore entered the twentieth century with no municipal sewerage system; wastes washed down the streets into the harbor and surrounding waters; "night soil" collected by contractors ultimately was dumped in or near Chesapeake Bay.

    Germs, not putrid air, however, were proved to cause disease and, in 1893, oysters were named carriers of the disease in a typhoid outbreak in Connecticut. Thus, when the Baltimore Sewerage Commission in 1897 proposed a giant sewer dumping city wastes into Chesapeake Bay, the powerful oyster interests opposed and effectively blocked action. Baltimore was not the only culprit; smaller cities and towns always had dumped untreated sewage into Bay waters. Nonetheless, Baltimore's rapidly growing population made the problem more acute. Yet, in 1904, the oyster interests again prevailed in the General Assembly, and legislation prohibited the new sewerage commission from building any system "involving the discharge of sewage . . . into the Chesapeake Bay or any of its tributaries" (Chapter 349, Acts of 1904). Interpreting this restriction to mean untreated sewage, Baltimore resolved to have municipal sewage treatment. The City, formerly the only major city without sewage treatment, gained the most advanced, state-of-the-art system when its Back Bay plant opened in 1912.

    Meanwhile, factors other than untreated sewage were recognized as polluting Chesapeake Bay. In 1910, the federal Public Health Service investigated pollution in both the Bay and the Potomac River. Truck farming and canneries had proliferated around the Bay, and the Public Health Service report agreed with the findings of the State Fisheries Commissioners that canning wastes harmed fisheries.

    In that same year, the State Board of Health was reformed as the Department of Health, within which the Bureau of Sanitary Engineering was established (Chapter 560, Acts of 1910). The Bureau protected water purity, oversaw sewerage and water supply projects, and in time became concerned with industrial waste and air pollution. In 1914, the Department of Health was made responsible for "preserving the purity of the waters of the State" (Chapter 810, Acts of 1914). The Department's Bureau of Sanitary Engineering regulated public water supplies and sewerage systems and issued cease-and-desist orders to manufacturing or industrial establishments found polluting State waters with their wastes, if a threat to human health or a public nuisance. In 1918, two employees of the Department of Health developed a formula to chlorinate water thus ensuring a pure drinking water supply not only for Maryland, but ultimately worldwide. One of them - Abel Wolman - went on as sanitary engineer, and later consultant to more than fifty nations and helped bring safe drinking water to millions of people around the world.

    Because concerns about water quality originated with fishery and oyster interests, in 1917 the Conservation Commission began to enforce abatement procedures for discharges which threatened fish and shellfish, or their "propagation, cultivation or conservation thereof, or to their safety as human food . . . " (Chapter 14, Acts of 1917). Discharges from public sewage disposal plants were exempted, however, and the Commission prohibited from infringing upon the jurisdiction of the Department of Health.

    The Conservation Commission sought cooperation from Maryland factory owners in treating their wastes to prevent industrial pollution. The Commission's 1917 annual report stated that no one would "wilfully persist in such an abuse" once they realized how untreated industrial wastes killed marine life. Lacking staff and facilities for scientific research or chemical analysis, the Commission's work to control pollution never received the same attention as did the condition of the oyster spat or the enforcement of game laws. Nonetheless, the Commission with the Department of Health began by examining pollution in the Curtis Bay area of Baltimore harbor. There, war-related industries had concentrated since 1914. Trade wastes exuded up to four million gallons per day from just one alcohol plant, whose attorneys in 1922 suggested that safeguarding Curtis Bay waters was impractical and impossible. They recommended that the area be designated an industrial zone exempt from water quality requirements. Despite the area's highly colored, thick and odoriferous waters, the Conservation Commission was unwilling to pinpoint Curtis Bay pollution as the cause of oyster decline in the Patapsco River and upper Chesapeake, blaming increased salinity and excess rainfall instead.

    In the early 1920s, industrial pollution was overshadowed by oil pollution, a problem exceeding the enforcement capabilities of the Conservation Commission. Oil-burning ships pumped oil from their bilges in quiet waters of Chesapeake Bay and its harbors, devastating beaches, waterfowl, and oysters. Conditions were alleviated somewhat in 1924 when the federal Oil Pollution Act prohibited vessels from dumping oil in navigable waters. That act was only the second major federal law on water pollution; the first - the federal Rivers and Harbors Act - outlawed dumping debris in navigable waters in 1899.

    The oyster faced a serious crisis in 1924. After a typhoid outbreak, eating raw oysters was outlawed in Illinois, and the U.S. Public Health Service began an investigation. In Maryland, oyster packing houses closed and soup kitchens opened on the Eastern Shore to feed the newly unemployed, even though Maryland's governor stated unequivocally that Maryland oysters never had caused a single case of typhoid. The Commission, reformed as the Conservation Department in 1922, strove to give the oyster a clean bill of health. This required regulation of oyster packing rather than water quality.

    To control water pollution, the State Department of Health and the Conservation Department continued their cooperative work. The 1927 annual report of the Conservation Department optimistically claimed:

    The pollution problem in our waters is being rapidly solved . . . the waters of Curtis Bay are in excellent condition, clear and free from all of the objectionable conditions that have prevailed for the last ten years. Crabs and fish are now inhabiting those waters as freely as they do in other waters of the State . . . the North Branch of Patapsco River, which has been polluted for a good many years by certain plants located near Asbestos, has improved nearly one hundred percent, due to the installation of reclamation plants at some of these factories. A systematic survey of the streams in and around Baltimore was made by our inspector during the months of August and September, 1927, and after correcting a few irregularities at the steel plants at Sparrows Point, we find there were no traces of oil or acid in the waters of Bear Creek and Dundalk section . . . We have had the hearty cooperation of the Bethlehem Steel Company, the Standard Oil Company, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Curtis Bay industries.

    A statewide drought in 1930 drew attention to water conservation and led to formation of the Water Resources Commission (Chapter 526, Acts of 1933). The Commission was to develop a State plan for water resource conservation and control the use of surface and underground waters. It issued permits for and inspected construction of dams and reservoirs. With the federal Civil Works Administration and later the Works Progress Administration, it compiled data on stream flow to plan for water regulation, water supplies, waste disposal, and industrial use. Earlier, concern over Maryland's water resources had prompted creation of the Maryland Water Front Commission in 1929 (Chapter 522, Acts of 1929). Both commissions in 1941 were absorbed into the Department of Geology, Mines, and Water Resources, which shared responsibilities for water supply with the Bureau of Engineering (Chapter 508, Acts of 1941).

    Debate in Congress over the federal government's role in abating water pollution began in the New Deal era and eventually led to passage of the federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. The act funded construction of waste treatment plants and allowed federal agencies to intervene, at a state's request, in cases of interstate pollution.

    In 1947, the Maryland legislature authorized the Water Pollution Control Commission "to receive, administer, and expend such funds as are now or may become available for pollution control from the Federal Government . . . " (Chapter 697, Acts of 1947). The Commission was to coordinate pollution control by all State agencies, specifically the Department of Health; the Commission of Tidewater Fisheries; the Department of Game and Inland Fish; the Department of Research and Education; and the Department of Geology, Mines and Water Resources. The Commission's annual report in 1948 noted that records of State water pollution control from 1937 to 1947 were "rather vague" since no personnel were assigned solely to that duty. In its first year, the Commission set standards and adopted regulations for water quality, establishing a basis for efficiently and scientifically combatting water pollution. In 1959, the Commission became one of six agencies under the Board of Natural Resources, and in 1964 was superseded by the Department of Water Resources (Chapter 695, Acts of 1959; Chapter 73, Acts of 1964). The Department of Water Resources became part of the Department of Natural Resources upon its formation in 1969 and was reorganized as the Water Resources Administration in 1972. The Administration transferred to the Department of the Environment in 1995 (Chapter 488, Acts of 1995).

    Air Quality. An offshoot of the modern industrial age, air pollution is perceived as a more recent phenomena than water pollution. Concern for air quality began in the cities and focused initially on visible pollution, i.e., smoke or particulate matter. Local boiler inspectors played a minor role in reducing smoke. In the United States, perhaps the first air pollution regulation was an 1881 Chicago ordinance declaring any emission of dense smoke to be a public nuisance. The first federal agency responsible for air quality was the Office of Air Pollution. Created in the early 1900s by the federal Bureau of Mines, the Office conducted research on smoke emission controls.

    Public awareness of invisible air pollution began in Los Angeles around 1947. A smog-reduction program regulated oil refineries and backyard incinerators, but by 1951, automobile exhausts were blamed for fouling the air. Closer to Maryland, weather conditions combined with mostly sulfur dioxide pollutants to envelop the small industrial community of Donora, Pennsylvania, in a four-day fog which killed 20 people and made 6,000 ill. In response, the Maryland General Assembly requested a study of noxious fumes in Maryland (Joint Resolution no. 16, Acts of 1949). Based on meteorological data, the Commission on Noxious Fumes concluded that Baltimore was highly unlikely to suffer from the same set of conditions which had prevailed at Donora. As for the industrialized towns in western Maryland whose topography resembled Donora, not enough data was available to make a prediction. Prior to 1950, Baltimore, Cumberland, and other Maryland municipalities had adopted ordinances for smoke control, and the Baltimore City Health Department, under its general power to abate nuisances, had taken some steps to reduce air pollution. The Commission suggested, however, that a State agency for air pollution control might be necessary in the future. Meanwhile, it recommended an annual appropriation of $100,000 to the State Department of Health to research the problem, with half the funds allocated to Baltimore City. The Legislature followed Commission advice in 1950, authorizing an annual appropriation of up to $100,000, but, in 1951, only $10,000 was appropriated (Chapter 20, Acts of 1950).

    Killer smogs, episodes in which weather conditions combine with industrial pollution to produce sudden serious illness or death in susceptible persons, occurred in London in 1952, and New York in 1953. As Congress urged federal funding for research and prevention, questions of jurisdiction immediately arose. Air pollution was perceived as a local problem, stemming from stationary localized sources. Consequently, the first major federal legislation to curb air pollution did not pass until 1955, and limited federal involvement to research and assistance to the states and educational institutions (P.L. 84-159).

    In December 1962, another killer smog in London highlighted the urgent need for an enforcement framework against air polluters. Maryland legislators passed the State's first air pollution law about six months before enactment of the federal Clean Air Act of 1963. Maryland's law created an Air Pollution Control Council to recommend regulations to the State Board of Health and Mental Hygiene and advise the Board on air pollution. The Board, in turn, was to adopt rules and regulations, disseminate information, consult with industries and political subdivisions, encourage and conduct research, and administer federal funds for air pollution control. Meanwhile, the State Department of Health enforced the law, giving due notice, followed by a hearing, followed by a fine. Maryland's first statement of air pollution policy was designed not to antagonize business:

    It is hereby determined and declared to be the policy of the State of Maryland to maintain such reasonable degree of purity of the air resources of the State as shall be technically feasible, economically reasonable, and necessary for the protection of the health, the general welfare and the property of the people of the State. The measures for the accomplishment of this purpose shall not unreasonably obstruct the operation, development and expansion of business, industry and commerce within the State, but shall be technically feasible and economically reasonable. Such purposes, moreover, shall at all times be sought to be effectuated by a maximum of conference, cooperation and persuasion. (Chapter 806, Acts of 1963)

    In December 1963, Congress passed the federal Clean Air Act. Its enforcement framework allowed the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to hold a public hearing, then a conference, and, in case of interstate pollution or if requested by a state, sue in federal court. The Clean Air Act specified, however, that primary responsibility for air pollution control and abatement rested with state and local governments, with $95 million in federal funds appropriated over three years. Congress then turned its attention to regulating auto emissions, which back in 1951 had been determined to cause Los Angeles smog. Despite heavy lobbying by the auto industry, the federal Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act passed in 1965. It regulated emissions from new automobiles and funded emissions research.

    Anticipating imminent passage of a federal law that required states to monitor, set standards for, and enforce air pollution controls, the Maryland legislature in 1967 enacted a law of its own. The law gave the State Department of Health jurisdiction over monitoring and enforcing; replaced the Air Pollution Control Council with the Air Quality Control Advisory Council, which was to adopt standards for emissions and ambient air quality; and divided the State into six air-quality control areas (Chapter 143, Acts of 1967). This time, policy was unambiguous: "to maintain that degree of purity of the air resources of the State which will protect the health, general welfare and property of the people of the State." Maryland's work to stop air pollution fell to the State Department of Health, specifically its Bureau of Sanitary Engineering, which sometime between its creation in 1910 and 1951 acquired a vague supervisory interest in aerial pollution. The Bureau was reformed as the Bureau of Environmental Hygiene in 1951 (Chapter 75, Acts of 1951). Under the Bureau was the Division of Industrial Health and Air Pollution. When the Department of Health was reorganized in 1966, Environmental Health Services was created with a Bureau of Resources Protection overseeing water supply, sewage disposal, air quality, and solid waste disposal, while the Bureau of Consumer Protection was responsible for drug control, radiological health, and general sanitation. The Division of Air Quality Control came under the Bureau of Resources Protection. The Division monitored air quality statewide and implemented Maryland's 1967 Air Quality Control Act (Chapter 143, Acts of 1967).

    In 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act created the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That law represented a major shift in policy, making preservation of the environment a federal priority, and approached the problem within a cohesive ecological framework. The law required environmental impact statements for federal projects, and the EPA began reviewing state plans and setting standards for air and water pollution, radiation, and solid and hazardous waste disposal. Passage of the federal act led to a flurry of state lawmaking to strengthen enforcement, set more stringent standards, and ensure eligibility for federal aid. Maryland was no exception. In 1970, at least sixteen environmental bills were passed to protect State wetlands, create the Maryland Environmental Service, revise pollution abatement under the Water Resources Law, and strengthen enforcement of air quality controls. By 1973, the General Assembly declared the inalienable right of each person to a healthful environment and gave it the highest public priority in the Maryland Environmental Policy Act (Chapter 702, Acts of 1973).

    Between 1960 and 1980 environmental groups, commissions, and councils alerted the public to the twin perils of environmental pollution and uncontrolled development. In response, the General Assembly created the Radiation Control Advisory Board in 1960, the Board of Certification of Water Works in 1967, the Water Sciences Advisory Board and the Board of Well Drillers in 1968, and the Board of Sanitarian Registration in 1969. Also formed were the Maryland Council on the Environment in 1970, the Noise Pollution Control Advisory Council in 1973, the Hazardous Substances Advisory Council in 1976, and the Council on Toxic Substances in 1979. To safeguard the environment, the General Assembly divided enforcement powers and planning capabilities mainly between units of the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They were responsible for programs and enforcement of all laws and regulations pertaining to air and water quality, solid and toxic waste, sedimentation and stormwater runoff, and environmental health until 1987.

    Department of the Environment. State environmental programs were consolidated into one executive department when the Department of the Environment was created in 1987 (Chapter 306, Acts of 1987).

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