Meet the South Riverkeeper

Jesse IliffJesse Iliff is an attorney who obtained his juris doctor with a certificate of concentration in environmental law from the University of Maryland, Carey School of Law. A native of Arnold, Maryland, he interned with the Office of the Attorney General’s Environmental Crimes Unit while studying for the bar exam before litigating a variety of cases in state and federal court after entering private practice in 2010.

While in law school, Jesse earned a Public Service Award for designing a pro bono project for environmental law students to assist in litigation regarding unsound wastewater treatment and retention practices by surface mining companies in West Virginia. Jesse also served as co-executive of the Maryland Environmental Law Society, designing and implementing conservation and fundraising programs for the student organization. In addition, he completed an Asper Fellowship with the Anne Arundel County Office of Law’s natural resources division.

Before joining the South River Federation, Jesse provided pro bono counsel and representation to several community groups and non-profit organizations through the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, most notably securing a permit from the Maryland Department of Environment to construct a living shoreline for the Pines Community Association on the Severn River in 2014. In his spare time Jesse enjoys softball, boating, hiking and cross country skiing with his wife Abbey and their son Baxter and daughter Willow.

Tracking environmental violations in Anne Arundel County

In late June 2017, I started an investigation of Anne Arundel County’s enforcement of its environmental code. I was motivated to do so after reporting a large sediment release from a construction project along Rt.2. Upon discussing it with County personnel, I learned that it is very rare for the County to issue a civil fine for incidents causing environmental damage.  Effectively, as long as a violator acknowledges they have caused damage and informs the County that they will try to prevent it from happening again, there is no consequence for polluting County waterways.

It is time we stopped allowing environmental damage to occur without consequence.

Reality of violations

To assess the extent of this apparent flaw in the County’s enforcement system, the Federation has collected every environmental enforcement case opened by Anne Arundel County since 2014 and is analyzing how it was resolved. While the analysis is ongoing, some obvious trends have already emerged. In 2014 and 2015, the County opened 647 and 675 environmental compliance cases, respectively. A little less than a third of cases uncover a violation. This makes sense, as many of these complaints are made by citizens might make a complaint out of precaution, not knowing the specifics of the law. However, it appears that  of the approximately 30% of complaints that do reflect a legitimate environmental violation, only about 50-60 receive a stop work order, fine, or referral to the Office of Law. In other words, only about a quarter of all environmental violations in the County receive any kind of consequence.

Tire dump

Environmental violation: illegal tire dump in the South River Watershed whose cleanup was complicated and delayed by the extensiveness of the dump.

sediment pollution

Environmental violation: sediment pollution from ineffective silt fencing placement

To be clear, remediation or deferral of a fine may be appropriate in some cases. If appropriate sediment controls, placed at a person’s property for home renovation/extension, were overwhelmed by a powerful storm, quickly repairing the problem may be all that is necessary. If a person tills the earth for a garden and genuinely didn’t know that a grading permit was required for their work, but then goes to obtain one, this corrective action may be sufficient. These are not the sort of violations our efforts are zeroing in on. Rather, it is the persistent violations by companies and individuals who knowingly act outside of the law, or the truly significant single violations that go without consequence that merit stronger enforcement action by the County.


Ineffective penalties

Several County personnel and others have expressed that current penalties are not effective deterrents for environmental carelessness. Although the County might issue fines totaling tens of thousands of dollars for large projects, some firms may be able to simply absorb this into their budget as the cost of doing business. Some County personnel have opined that their best enforcement tool is a stop work order, but this tool has limitations too. It requires that a violation be noted while it is happening, which is often not the case. In addition, if a stop work order is issued, the violator will be required to fix up the condition which warrants the order, but damage already done is often unresolved.

The ongoing enforcement audit is intended to identify the shortcomings in the County’s enforcement apparatus. Stay tuned as the Federation establishes conclusively what those shortcomings are, who is responsible for them, and how we can fix it.

Yours for Clean Water,

–Jesse Iliff