Md. takes a smart ap­proach on sep­tics

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Lisa Wainger Lisa Wainger is a re­search pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal eco­nom­ics at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence and the cur­rent chair of the Sci­en­tific and Tech­ni­cal Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee to the US EPA Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram. S

In a re­cent ed­i­to­rial ti­tled “The sep­tic back­slide,” The Sun ac­cused Mary­land’s govern­ment of cav­ing to ru­ral in­ter­ests and putting Ch­e­sa­peake Bay restora­tion at risk. The ed­i­tors’ claim is that by amend­ing reg­u­la­tions to al­low gov­ern­ments to tar­get ad­vanced sep­tic pol­lu­tion con­trols — re­ferred to as BAT — to the ar­eas where they can do the most good, the govern­ment is be­ing ir­re­spon­si­ble. “Cav­ing” in this case means lis­ten­ing to ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties when they point out that, for many lo­ca­tions, in­stalling BAT will not cre­ate sub­stan­tial wa­ter qual­ity ben­e­fits.

Giv­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ments greater con­trol over how to meet en­vi­ron­men­tal tar­gets is fis­cally re­spon­si­ble be­cause it pro­motes cost-ef­fec­tive choices that can be used to meet mul­ti­ple lo­cal needs. The in­vest­ment in BAT, which can eas­ily cost more than $10,000 per sys­tem to in­stall and more for on­go­ing main­te­nance, is only money well spent when it sub­stan­tially im­proves wa­ter qual­ity. Even though BAT is highly ef­fec­tive at re­mov­ing ni­tro­gen, for many lo­ca­tions, the ni­tro­gen re­moved would never have reached a place where it could do harm. Mu­chofthen­i­tro­gen that is re­leased far from ma­jor wa­ter bodies gets re­moved by plants and bac­te­ria be­fore reach­ing the bay. Fur­ther, many lo­cal wa­ter qual­ity prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly the kind that cause swim­ming bans in lakes, are caused by phos­pho­rus or harm­ful bac­te­ria, nei­ther of which are ad­dressed by re­quir­ing that new sys­tems use BAT.

The Mary­land De­part­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment is not back­ing away from re­quir­ing BAT where it does make a dif­fer­ence. The sci­en­tific ev­i­dence is strong that sep­tics in the crit­i­cal area af­fect es­tu­ar­ine wa­ter qual­ity and con­trib­ute to poor habi­tat con­di­tions for fish and wa­ter­fowl. The re­quire­ment for BAT in the “crit­i­cal ar­eas” near ti­dal wa­ters means that spend­ing will be tar­get­ing where it gen­er­ates the most bang for the buck. Fur­ther, be­cause main­te­nance is crit­i­cal to on­go­ing ni­tro­gen re­moval, the MDE is propos­ing re­quire­ments for main­te­nance con­tracts on th­ese sys­tems in the crit­i­cal area.

Be­cause BAT per­for­mance depends on lo­ca­tion, the pro­posed reg­u­la­tion gives lo­cal gov­ern­ments the flex­i­bil­ity to choose sewer hookups or other tech­nolo­gies where they make sense. It also gives them the op­tion to re­quire BAT where it makes sense out­side the crit­i­cal area. Even coun­ties far from the bay will have places where BAT could be an ef­fec­tive tool be­cause wa­ter flow paths cause some sites to de­liver more ni­tro­gen to the bay than oth­ers. With this flex­i­bil­ity, lo­cal gov­ern­ments will have the op­tion to spend money in ways that will most mean­ing­fully im­prove wa­ter qual­ity.

The ed­i­to­rial board is right to be con­cerned that too much flex­i­bil­ity can re­sult in in­ac­tion. Suc­cess­ful Ch­e­sa­peake Bay restora­tion will re­quire en­force­able and ver­i­fi­able caps on nu­tri­ents. How­ever, once ad­e­quate pro­tec­tions are in place to en­sure caps are met, much can be gained from al­low­ing the type of flex­i­bil­ity that pro­motes in­no­va­tion and cost-ef­fec­tive­ness. Con­trary to the as­ser­tion that flex­i­bil­ity is al­ways bad for the en­vi­ron­ment, flex­i­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal poli­cies have paid off in Vir­ginia. That state’s waste­water treat­ment plants were able to meet their des­ig­nated pol­lu­tion caps at lower cost than orig­i­nal es­ti­mates, in large part due to a flex­i­ble “bub­ble per­mit.” This in­no­va­tion set a pol­lu­tion tar­get for a group of plants, which en­abled them to con­duct plant up­grades in a cost-ef­fec­tive man­ner. The en­vi­ron­men­tal goal was not com­pro­mised as a re­sult of this flex­i­bil­ity, and ratepay­ers saved money.

Economists and oth­ers have long rec­og­nized that in­no­va­tion is sup­ported by telling peo­ple what you want them to do, not how to do it. With en­force­able goals, rather than dic­tated one-size-fits-all tech­nol­ogy, in­no­va­tors are en­abled to find new and ef­fec­tive ways to achieve goals at a min­i­mum cost.

Giv­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ments con­trol over howthey meet en­vi­ron­men­tal tar­gets is also a way to pre­vent Ch­e­sa­peake Bay com­pas­sion fa­tigue. Lo­cal gov­ern­ments are not “whin­ing,” as sug­gested by The Sun, when­they balk at ask­ing res­i­dents to spend money on in­ap­pro­pri­ate so­lu­tions at the ex­pense of other ur­gent needs. Rather, by mak­ing this ad­just­ment to reg­u­la­tions, the govern­ment is cre­at­ing con­fi­dence among Mary­land res­i­dents that they are com­mit­ted to spend­ing money in ap­pro­pri­ate ways to achieve the clean and safe Ch­e­sa­peake Bay that peo­ple want.

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