Maryland Has a Growing Climate Justice Problem in Stormwater
Clarissa Libertelli, Center for Progressive Reform
Hurricane season hit Maryland hard this year, and even as it comes to a close, heavy rains continue to cause highway shutdowns and spread toxic floodwater. With the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) currently updating its rules and permits regarding stormwater, Marylanders have an opportunity to protect their communities against one of the most pernicious problems climate change poses for the region.
Stormwater pollution occurs when heavy rain or snow is not absorbed by the ground due to oversaturated soil or impervious surfaces. The runoff sometimes reaches dangerous volumes, turning roadways into rivers and causing flash floods.
It also pollutes our environment: When runoff flows over rooftops, streets, and storm sewers, it collects trash, chemicals, bacteria, sediment, and other toxic and harmful substances that are carried into our waterways. Along the way, the polluted water passes through communities, evaporating and coating the surrounding environment with toxins that find their way into our homes and our bodies.
In Maryland, stormwater is a source of sediment and other pollutants in the Potomac River and the streams and rivers that feed into the delicate Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
Marginalized Communities at High Risk
As with most environmental hazards, low-income communities and communities of color face the highest exposure to danger. Stormwater is especially problematic in low-income, urban neighborhoods of color, which are paved with concrete and have few trees and green spaces. In Baltimore, for example, white residents have access to more acreage of parks than Black residents.
These same communities also struggle to obtain the necessary resources to address stormwater. In 2016 and 2018, massive storms caused flash flooding that devastated Ellicott City — a predominantly white, upper-class, and politically active area — and Baltimore, primarily in low-income communities of color. Since then, Ellicott City has received extensive news coverage and millions of dollars in federal, state, and local funding for flood mitigation efforts, while Baltimore residents are still struggling to recover.
Similarly, Prince George’s County, a predominantly Black county near Washington, D.C., has had to fight for government attention and infrastructure funding to address ongoing flooding. With a lack of funding for infrastructure and insufficient reimbursement programs, residents, often already struggling financially, are forced to pick up the bill.
Maryland’s low-income communities of color suffer from a disproportionately high concentration of nearby industrial facilities that pose higher risks of exposure to toxic stormwater pollution. Baltimore communities with fewer green spaces and more flooding also have the highest concentration of stormwater permit violations. From 2017 to 2020, MDE inspectors found approximately 75 percent of facilities with stormwater permits had committed rule violations, but the agency took only 14 formal enforcement actions.
Low-income communities of color are also more likely to have low-quality housing more vulnerable to stormwater-related flooding and bio-contaminants like mold. This summer, tenants from Latino communities in Langley Park, Prince George’s County, filed a complaint against their landlord to fight discriminatory housing practices that left their homes unsafe and mold-ridden.
Stormwater can be lethal, too. This summer, Melvin Daniel Cedillo, a 19-year-old from Honduras who lived in Rockville, Md., outside of Washington, D.C., died when heavy rains suddenly flooded his family’s basement apartment in the middle of the night. Melvin’s tragic death is not an isolated incident — a large number of the victims claimed by flash flooding during Hurricane Ida lived in basement apartments typically rented to lower-income tenants.
How to Move Forward
We must take stormwater seriously; otherwise, its victim count will only go up.
Climate change is bringing more frequent and heavier rainfall to the East Coast: Precipitation is intensifying more rapidly in the Chesapeake Bay region than anywhere else in the country. Maryland’s MDE must keep pace not only with climate change, but also with a growing suburban population, increasing development, and aging infrastructure.
Join the Center for Progressive Reform and the Chesapeake Accountability Project in urging the MDE to create and enforce strong stormwater permits that require effective water pollution control practices. To call for this critical step toward climate resiliency and protecting the health and safety of all Maryland residents, sign the petition here.
Image courtesy of Will Parson, Chesapeake Bay Program