Opinion: Sometimes we have to be our own environmental advocates

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Leonard Mill Pond in Wicomico County is a primary headwater to the Wicomico River and one of seven Trophy Bass Management Areas in Maryland.

The northern end of the pond – also known as Williams Pond – is a nontidal forested wetland. 

Our family has lived on Leonard’s Mill Pond for over 30 years. To say that the pond is a special place is an understatement.

The variety of flora and fauna found in its waters and on its fertile, muddy banks is truly breathtaking. Recognizing the significant ecological value of Leonards Mill Pond and Williams Pond, the State of Maryland long ago designated the area as a Wetland of Special State Concern.

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, WSSC are sites “with exceptional ecological and educational value,” and often “contain the last remaining populations of native plants and animals that are now rare and threatened with extinction in the state.”

On Christmas morning 2020, our family awoke to find a large swath of the pond covered in a coffee-creamer colored plume of sediment pollution.

It was the worst sediment runoff any of us had ever seen. And it was undoubtedly emanating from the stormwater outfall of the neighboring Pond’s Edge Apartments complex on the northeast side of the pond.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first sediment plume we had seen emanating from the complex’s outfall that year, nor would it be the last. From October 2020 to March 2021, we witnessed at least nine significant sediment runoff events.

With each plume, sediment-filled water would cloud the pond for days, and grayish residue could be seen on vegetation long after the sediment plume had settled to the pond bottom. We, of course, documented each of these sediment releases with photos and/or emails to the regional MDE office.

In November 2020, we learned that our neighbors, whose property is north of ours, had also observed numerous significant sediment runoff events from a newly installed stormwater outfall at the northeast corner of Pond’s Edge’s property.

The sediment from this northern outfall drained directly into the WSSC. We subsequently learned from MDE that the developer, Montchanin Development Group, had built the northern outfall without obtaining or even applying for the permits required by state and federal law. It was only after the repeated sediment discharges were brought to MDE’s attention by us and our neighbors that the developer filed an after-the-fact permit application requesting that MDE bless its un-permitted structure retroactively.

After a bare-bones public comment period, and a six-month delay – during which MDE had extensive dialogue with the developer but none with any of the adjoining landowners – MDE granted the retroactive permit application on Nov. 23.

This decision effectively gives the out-of-state developer a free pass for ignoring well-established state laws and using one of the most ecologically valuable wetlands in the state as a stormwater sewer.

It is disheartening to think of MDE as more a proxy for developers than a steward of the environment.

In fairness, perhaps this is simply the product of an agency that has been woefully understaffed and underfunded for years.

Or perhaps it is a product of Wicomico County, in a highly unusual and legally questionable move, delegating its authority over approving stormwater management plans to the town of Delmar.

Or perhaps, as the developer’s engineers have claimed, the sediment pollution events were due to “historic” amounts of rainfall.

Though this begs the question: If a developer is going to engage in significant land disturbance during the rainiest months of the year, shouldn’t he ensure that adequate sediment and erosion controls are in place to prevent sediment pollution even during heavier-than-average rains?

And if something happens nine times in six months, can we really call it “historic”?

Determining where to place the blame for these wrongs may ultimately be less important than figuring out how to prevent further damage to this ecologically sensitive and highly valuable natural resource.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, sediment pollution is the most significant cause of water quality degradation in rivers and streams in the United States. We now know MDE will do little to protect the Leonard Mill Pond ecosystem from suffering irreparable harm, so we can only hope that the continued vigilance of our family and our neighbors will be enough.

At the very least, this should serve a stark lesson for anyone who cares about our environment that the agencies vested with the responsibility of protecting it often fail to rise to the occasion. When these agencies fail us, we must be our own environmental advocates.

Cathrin Banks and Matt Gedney are Delmar residents.