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Maryland environment secretary, longest serving in state history, to step down for nonprofit gig; deputy secretary to take over

Baltimore Sun logoBaltimore Sun 5/10/2022 Christine Condon, Baltimore Sun
Ben Grumbles, Maryland Secretary of the Environment, is stepping down from the position © Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS Ben Grumbles, Maryland Secretary of the Environment, is stepping down from the position

Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles, the longest serving environment secretary in state history, is stepping down next month to take the helm of a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the group announced Monday.

Grumbles will start June 1 as executive director of the Environmental Council of States. His move comes as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s second and final term nears its end.

During Grumbles’ seven-year tenure as Maryland’s environment secretary, he served as president of the national nonprofit, which encourages collaboration between state environmental agency leaders to increase their capabilities.

Grumbles’ Department of the Environment has come under fire at times for what detractors dubbed slow responses to certain environmental concerns, and for pollution permits that were allowed to languish as staffing levels at the department declined. But officials praised him Monday as an accessible leader who steered the state in the right direction on Chesapeake Bay cleanup issues and on climate change.

In a statement, Grumbles called his job as secretary “the honor of a lifetime.”

“Maryland is a national leader in climate action and environmental protection thanks to Governor Hogan’s leadership and the tireless efforts of our department’s employees, and our many public and private sector partners throughout the state, region, and nation,” he said.

Grumbles will be replaced by his deputy secretary, Horacio Tablada, Hogan announced Monday.

Tablada, a native of Nicaragua who was named a deputy secretary in 2015, has more than three decades of experience as an environmental leader in Maryland, Hogan’s office said in a news release. He previously served as director of the department’s Land Management Administration, and helped manage environmental oversight efforts for the redevelopment of industrial sites such as the former Sparrows Point steel mill, as well as efforts to reduce childhood lead poisoning, according to the news release.

“I look forward to serving the citizens of Maryland and continuing to advance the science-based policies that have resulted in cleaner air, a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, sustainable and restored properties and protection of our children from lead poisoning,” Tablada said in the release.

Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, lauded Grumbles’ “open door policy” during his tenure but said his department could have performed better when it came to issuing timely water pollution permits that regulate the discharge of pollutants into state waterways.

“Secretary Tablada is going to have a true opportunity to make some real progress in that area,” she said.

In recent years, particular permits were administratively continued by the department, meaning they were not reevaluated after they lapsed, including that of Valley Proteins, an Eastern Shore chicken rendering plant with a documented history of exceeding its pollution limits. Environmental advocates have at times argued that Grumbles’ department was too light-handed with polluters, citing for example a decision to offer state money to help Valley Proteins improve its water treatment process. Ultimately, the funds were rescinded.

During a Maryland Senate hearing this year, Grumbles drew questions and some consternation from legislators over his department’s decline in staffing and environmental inspections, as well as its handling of a sewage spill in Southern Maryland, which sickened two dozen people who consumed contaminated oysters. Grumbles said a “silver tsunami” of retirements left the department undermanned and pledged to increase staffing levels and inspections at poultry farms.

But Coble said she enjoyed her time serving alongside Grumbles on the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, which was formed by the General Assembly in 2015.

“He’s really managed that commission, which is a tough group because there’s so many diverse opinions on it and viewpoints,” she said. “He’s managed it very well.”

Coble said she “would not be surprised” if the next governor, set to take office in January at the conclusion of Hogan’s final term, decides to appoint their own environment secretary, forcing another transition period at the department. But she added that she’s hopeful MDE employees, and the governor, will continue to guide the department and set the agenda as leadership changes.

In a statement, Josh Kurtz, the Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, applauded Grumbles for his leadership of the climate change commission and his “work to reduce Chesapeake Bay pollution during his time leading MDE.”

Recent reports have indicated that Maryland is mostly on track to meet its pollution reduction goals for the bay in time for a 2025 federal deadline, although Pennsylvania is lagging behind. During Grumbles’ tenure, Maryland sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency, arguing it wasn’t doing enough to hold Pennsylvania accountable for its requirements under the bay agreement.

“We hope [Tablada] will continue the needed work at the department supporting litigation to ensure EPA holds Pennsylvania accountable for failing to meet Bay cleanup goals, correct problems at Baltimore’s wastewater treatment plants, and double down on methods to reduce stormwater runoff and agricultural pollution in Maryland,” Kurtz said in a statement.

Grumbles took an extraordinary step earlier this year to order the Maryland Environmental Service to take over one of Baltimore’s wastewater treatment plants, which was discharging excessive pollutants into the Back River in eastern Baltimore County. The city has challenged Grumbles’ move in court, but a judge has yet to rule on the matter. Under Grumbles’ leadership, the state also sued Baltimore over pollution issues at its two wastewater plants, a suit that is also making its way through the court.

Grumbles was a “tremendous partner” for the EPA as well, said Adam Ortiz, the EPA’s administrator for Region 3, which includes Maryland and several neighboring states.

“[Grumbles] has shown tremendous leadership that other states are trying to keep up with in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz pointed to a recent $25 million commitment from Maryland for improvements in the Susquehanna River watershed, which supplies about half of the Bay’s fresh water yet washes pollutants downstream from Pennsylvania, some of which get caught behind the Conowingo Dam.

“That was a remarkable commitment from Maryland,” Ortiz said.

©2022 Baltimore Sun. Visit baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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