Sep­tic pro­posed to roll back to Pre-2012 man­date

Dorchester Star - - Regional - By JOSH BOLLINGER jbollinger@star­dem.com

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.”

CE­CIL WHIG FILE PHOTO

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.

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