Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles, the longest-serving secretary of the environment in the state’s history, is stepping down next month to take the helm of a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, the group announced Monday.
Grumbles will take office June 1 as executive director of the Environmental Council of States. It comes as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s second and final term nears the end.
During Grumbles’ seven-year tenure as Maryland Secretary of the Environment, he served as President of the national nonprofit that encourages collaboration among leading state environmental agencies to improve their skills.
The Grumbles Environment Department has come under fire at times, critics citing slow responses to certain environmental issues and pollution permits being delayed due to the Department’s downsizing. But officials Monday hailed him as an approachable leader who steered the state in the right direction on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup and climate change.
In a statement, Grumbles called his job as secretary “the honor of his life.”
“Maryland is a national leader in climate and environmental protection, thanks to the leadership of Governor Hogan and the tireless efforts of our Department staff and our many partners from the public and private sectors across the state, region and nationwide,” he said .
Grumbles will be replaced by his assistant secretary, Horacio Tablada, Hogan announced Monday.
Tablada, a Nicaraguan native who was named assistant secretary in 2015, has more than three decades of experience as an environmental leader in Maryland, according to a press release from Hogan’s office. He was previously director of the department’s Land Management Administration and helped lead environmental oversight efforts for the rehabilitation of industrial sites such as the former Sparrows Point Steelworks, as well as efforts to reduce lead poisoning among children, the press release said.
“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 homes, and protecting our children from lead poisoning,” Tablada said in a message release .
Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, praised Grumble’s “open-door policy” during his tenure, but said his department could have done better when it came to the timely issuance of water pollution permits that allow pollutants to be discharged into the State regulate waterways.
“Secretary Tablada will have a real opportunity to make real progress in this area,” she said.
In recent years, certain permits have been administratively continued by the department, meaning they have not been reevaluated upon expiration, and have drawn the attention of lawmakers and environmentalists, including that of Valley Proteins, an East Coast chicken processing facility with one documented history of exceeding its pollution limits. Environmentalists have at times argued that Grumbles’ division was too careless with polluters, in part due to its decision to offer government money to help Valley Proteins improve its water treatment process. Eventually the funds were withdrawn.
During a Maryland Senate hearing that year, Grumbles drew questions and some consternation from lawmakers about his department’s decline in staffing and environmental inspections, and its handling of a southern Maryland sewage spill that was sickening two dozen people who were contaminating Oysters consumed. Grumbles pledged to increase staffing levels after a “silver tsunami” of retirements understaffed them and step up inspections at poultry farms.
But Coble said she enjoyed working alongside Grumbles on the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, formed by the General Assembly in 2015.
“He really ran this commission, which is a difficult group because there are so many different opinions and viewpoints on it,” she said. “He handled it very well.”
Coble said she would not be “surprised” if the next governor, who is due to take office in January at the end of Hogan’s last term, decides to appoint his own environment secretary, forcing another transitional period at the department. But she added that her hopeful MDE staffers and the governor will continue to lead the department and set the agenda for leadership changes.
In a statement, Josh Kurtz, the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland, commended Grumbles for his leadership of the climate commission and his “work to reduce pollution from the Chesapeake Bay during his tenure as head of MDE.”
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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, though Pennsylvania is lagging behind. During Grumbles’ tenure, Maryland sued the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that it was not doing enough to hold Pennsylvania accountable for its Bay Accord requirements.
“We hope [Tablada] will continue necessary work in the litigation support division to ensure EPA holds Pennsylvania accountable for failing to meet cleaning targets in the Bay, correcting problems at Baltimore’s wastewater treatment plants, and methods to reduce stormwater runoff and agricultural pollution in Maryland have doubled,” Kurtz said in a statement.
Grumbles took an extraordinary step earlier this year by directing the Maryland Environmental Service to take over one of Baltimore’s sewage treatment plants that was dumping excessive pollutants into Dundalk’s Back River. 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 problems at its two sewage facilities, a lawsuit also making its way through the court.
Grumbles is also a “great partner” for the EPA, 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 in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are keen to match,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz pointed to a recent $25 million Maryland commitment for improvements in the Susquehanna watershed, which has drawn attention to the pollutants it is dumping from Pennsylvania into Maryland’s Conowingo Dam.
“That was a remarkable commitment from Maryland,” Ortiz said.