Making a (small) difference

The best stories often come from simply asking questions.

A couple years back, I was inspired when people would ask me: Does anyone ever get fined for sewage spills?

I dug around and found out that fines for sewage spills are often quite small.

That generated another question: Where does that fine money go?

The result was a story that I published this past summer. The fines for water pollution — along with certain water permit fees — goes into something called the Maryland Clean Water Fund. And the Maryland Clean Water Fund, I found out, pays mostly for salaries, program administration and other overhead.

It does not really go toward on-the-ground (or on-the-water) pollution cleanup/remediation/prevention projects.

There’s nothing illegal or even improper about it. This is exactly how the fund was set up.

I didn’t get too much feedback on my story at the time. But it did inspire two local lawmakers to take up the issue.

They’re sponsoring the bills that would require that water pollution fines be spent on cleanup projects or environmental restoration projects.

I don’t know if the bills are going to go anywhere, and it’s not my place to advocate for or against them. But I am glad to see that my story has spurred discussions among lawmakers about the fines and the fund. That’s what I think newspapers should be all about: Sharing information and spurring discussion.

As I once heard the late, great Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham say: “Newspapers give people the information they need to make our democracy work.”

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