Septic proposed to roll back to Pre-2012 mandate
EASTON — While Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s and the Maryland Department of the Environment’s propose a rollback for septic regulations, some in the environmental community worry the proposal could signal a shift away from a focus on water quality advancements.
MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles said the septic proposal itself has a minimal environmental impact, and the department is focused on water quality.
“Our analysis and the views of Bay-wide scientists is that there are more cost-effective ways to reduce the nitrogen coming from these septic systems,” Grumbles said. “It’s very important to approach this regulatory initiative from the perspective of the overall package, and the overall package is that we’re continuing in our commitment to clean water and environmental progress.”
Hogan announced at the Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City that he wants to roll back a 2012 mandate ordered by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, that requires all new homes built in Maryland use best available technology septic on site, if not connected to public sewer.
The mandate includes homes built outside the critical area. A critical area is within 1,000 feet of the Bay’s tidal waters, where land use has a bigger impact on the watershed’s health.
The regulations developed by MDE state that counties will have the option to choose whether or not they will require best available technology (BAT) septic systems outside the critical areas. The mandate for BAT septic system inside the critical areas remains.
“We used this as an important step forward for smarter, more balanced regulations,” Grumbles said. “It’s a measured step to reduce the regulatory burden, while ensuring that clean water remains a priority.”
Proponents of the regulation change say the 2012 BAT septic mandate hurt small home construction, particularly in areas of the Eastern Shore like Caroline County, where most of the county is on septic.
“I don’t think that it should have been done to begin with. There’s no hard data that proves that land that’s not in the critical area is going to leech into the Bay anyway,” said Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent, on the 2012 mandate. “The cost, especially in my district, what it has done to Caroline and Kent County by putting that additional financial burden on new construction has really just killed ... starter homes; the smaller 1,800-square-foot and down homes.”
Jacobs said smaller home construction in Caroline County was probably the most impacted in his district by the BAT septic mandate — coupled with a mandate that requires sprinkler systems be installed in every new home, which is another issue in and of itself that Jacobs and other Eastern Shore lawmakers say adds cost to new home construction.
“You could take the same exact house that was built before those provisions that were put into place and the banks would lend based on comparables,” he said. “People just could not get a loan because they were lending 80 percent of comparable; they just couldn’t afford to build that new house.”
According to MDE, Dorchester County has the most acreage of critical area in the state at 176,600 acres, following by Talbot County at 65,689. Caroline County has 15,940 acres in the critical area.
According to the Caroline County Depar tment of Planning and Codes dwelling permit data, 12 modular homes were built in the county in 2010, four in 2011 and five in 2010. In 2013, after the BAT septic mandate came, zero homes were built, one was built in 2014, zero in 2015, and two dwelling permits were issued to-date in 2016.
Also in Caroline County, stickbuilt homes increased from 19 in 2012 to 42 in 2015. To date in 2016, 16 dwelling permits were issued for stick-built homes.
The BAT septic systems, compared to traditional septic systems, were meant as a safeguard against nitrogen from leeching into ground water and eventually to the Bay’s waters. Excess nitrogen can pollute the Bay and cause issues like algae blooms in the water.
But Grumbles said not using BAT septic systems outside the critical area will lead to a small increase in nitrogen loads to the Bay of 50,000 pounds over 10 years.
“To put that in context, that’s about 1 percent of what the state is obligated to do in order to meet its requirements for nitrogen for the (Total Maximum Daily Load),” he said. “We view this as a measured approach to increase cost effectiveness for smarter regulations, and the safeguards that we’re including also are to insist on improved maintenance of septic systems throughout the state.”
Grumbles said the proposed regulation to roll back the BAT septic requirement includes several key safeguards. One of them is that “location matters,” he said, and there’s no change for BAT septic requirements inside the critical area.
Another safeguard, Grumbles said, is putting a priority on inspection and oversight to help counties and local municipal governments improve the maintenance and pump-out of septic systems, and to ensure that traditional septic systems are functioning properly.
“We’re committed to reducing the problem of failing septic systems,” he said.
Grumbles said another component of the regulation is collaborating with several other partners in government to host forums to give counties information, technical and financial assistance, and start the conversation to rethink counties’ decision on whether or not properties should be hooked up to sewer and sewage treatment plants, the “septic versus sewer” question.
He said hooking rural areas up to sewer and getting them off septics makes sense in some parts of the state, and is also good for the environment.
A fundamental theme of the initiative is that it’s not a one-size-fits all approach, Grumbles said.
“We need to customize our solutions. You need to stop the failing septic system problem as much as possible, and we need to provide information so that counties and local government can look at and seriously consider sewers,” he said.
Members of the environmental nonprofit community, however, have expressed concern over rolling back the BAT septic requirement.
While it’s a small amount, septic systems outside of the critical area still pollute, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy Executive Director Jeff Horstman said.
“It’s not a huge source of pollution in areas where they don’t come into contact with the ground water,” Horstman said. “But I think what the broader concern is, this is signaling a broader rollback.”
Hogan has built his administration on promising the rolling back or repeal of what are identified as burdensome or unnecessary regulations, including environmentbased regulations — the BAT septic rollback among them.
“The septics themselves don’t have me tremendously upset. All of these things together are concerning,” Horstman said. “We finally had some water quality improvements with (submerged aquatic vegetation) coming back and water clarity, and now is just the wrong time to backslide, in my opinion ... We’re rolling back regulations that protect water quality in more than one area, and that’s concerning.”
Newly constructed homes in rural area may become a little bit cheaper if the state rolls back mandates on septic technology as proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan.