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Ben's Blog - Coronavirus Testing All
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CORONAVIRUS TESTING ALL

Each person, family, and community is being “tested” in how we respond to and cope with the COVID-19 crisis. The same is true for entire organizations, like MDE, the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Our 950-person department just completed its first week of mandatory teleworking and office closures, with about 95% of our employees teleworking part time and about 70% teleworking all the time, based on information received to date. It’s challenging us, including our human resources and information technology leaders, but we’re getting the job done as best we can and learning new skills while being inspired by heroic acts within and beyond the Department.

One of my favorite examples of rising to the challenge with creativity and collaboration: Governor Larry Hogan announced that several Vehicle Emission Inspection Program (VEIP) stations, while closed because of the pandemic, would be re-purposed for COVID-19 virus tests rather than tailpipe emission readings. We thank our sister agencies, the Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration and the Maryland Department of Health, for leading this collaboration. We also thank the U.S. EPA for working with MDE to accommodate the temporary pivot under the Clean Air Act so as to make the best of a bad situation and advance an even more urgent type of testing for public health protection.

MDE emergency response and oil control team members are continuing to respond to spills and leaks, because accidents with hazardous materials don’t stop during inconvenient or dangerous times. We are also continuing our field presence with inspections, testing, and enforcement on the most mission-critical matters affecting Marylanders’ public health and environment. This includes monitoring for contaminants at water treatment plants, safety conditions at dams, and capacity issues at incinerators and landfills particularly as the amount of medical waste grows. Through it all, we must continue to put a priority on protecting the health and safety of our dedicated employees and their families.

We’re still open for business and looking for ways to improve customer service and environmental outcomes, but doing it increasingly from home with the help of laptops, iPads and other smart devices and cyber strategies. It’s all a clear sign the future of paperless, electronic permitting, reporting, certifying, and inspecting (what some are calling virtual inspections) will gain traction in the weeks and months ahead. Of course, right now, even with electronic technology, there’s no substitute for hands-on personal involvement and public engagement regarding certain permits, licenses, registrations or other governmental authorizations. We’ll be utilizing the Governor’s carefully crafted emergency order of March 12 to extend certain time frames for issuance or renewal of such governmental documents during the state of emergency, when necessary to do so.

In the category of “silver linings”: We also continue to measure our carbon footprint as part of our important work on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions to gauge the effect of widespread teleworking, reduced vehicle miles traveled, and other defining features of the COVID-19 crisis. The lessons we learn from robust teleworking and e-governance, while still fulfilling our environmental and public health mission, should help Maryland and other states, as well as EPA and Native American tribes, “modernize the business of environmental protection.”

For more information go to coronavirus.maryland.gov.

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