Gov­er­nor to ease sep­tic reg­u­la­tions

Ni­tro­gen re­moval sys­tems re­quired on South­ern Mary­land wa­ter­fronts

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By TA­MARA WARD tward@somd­

Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) told the Mary­land As­so­ci­a­tion of Coun­ties on Aug. 20 the best avail­able tech­nol­ogy sep­tic sys­tems would no longer be re­quired in ar­eas out­side of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Crit­i­cal Area. The “crit­i­cal area” is de­fined by all land within 1,000 feet of the tidal wa­ters or wet­lands of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and its trib­u­taries, which in­cludes the Patux­ent River.

Un­der for­mer Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, all new sep­tic sys­tems in Mary­land were re­quired to in­clude the best avail­able tech­nol­ogy to re­duce their out­put of harm­ful ni­tro­gen go­ing into the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay wa­ter­shed. Those reg­u­la­tions went into ef­fect in 2013.

“I thought the ear­lier ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­po­si­tion of en­hanced ni­tro­gen-re­mov­ing sys­tems out­side of the crit­i­cal area was an over­reach,” said Calvert County Com­mis­sion­ers’ Pres­i­dent Evan Slaugh­en­houpt (R), who said he was pleased the gov­er­nor was re­lax­ing the sep­tic reg­u­la­tions.

The Mary­land Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment re­ports a nor­mal sep­tic sys­tem pro­duces about 23 pounds of ni­tro­gen per year. High lev­els of ni­tro­gen are bad for the en­vi­ron­men­tal health of the the bay.

The best avail­able tech­nol­ogy sys­tems, or BAT, re­duces the num­ber of pounds of ni­tro­gen pro­duced by about half.

Un­der Ho­gan, the BAT sep­tics will still be re­quired in the crit­i­cal area and also for sys­tems of 5,000 gal­lons or more. Ad­di­tion­ally, lo­cal gov­ern­ments would have the flex­i­bil­ity to re­quire BAT sys­tems out­side of the crit­i­cal area.

There are about 420,000 sep­tic sys­tems in Mary­land, with 52,000 of them in the crit­i­cal area, ac­cord­ing to the MDE web­site. More than 8,000 sep­tic sys­tems have been up­graded over the years to the best avail­able tech­nol­ogy.

In Charles County, there are roughly 30,000 acres in the crit­i­cal area. County lead­er­ship var­ied on the is­sue of eas­ing the BAT re­quire­ment.

County Com­mis­sioner Ken Robin­son (D) said while Ho­gan’s strat­egy might prove to be cost ef­fec­tive for de­vel­op­ment, less ex­pen­sive sys­tems with­out the best avail­able tech­nol­ogy are still less re­li­able. That “isn’t al­ways the best op­tion for our en­vi­ron­ment,” he said.

Charles County Com­mis­sion­ers Vice Pres­i­dent De­bra Davis (D) said she “likes the idea” of coun­ties hav­ing the op­tion to still re­quire de­vel­op­ers to use the best avail­able tech­nol­ogy for sep­tic sys­tems. One of the cam­paign prom­ises Ho­gan made was that he would al­low in­di­vid­ual ju­ris­dic­tions more au­ton­omy and this pol­icy fol­lows along with that prom­ise.

Calvert County has roughly 25,000 acres in the crit­i­cal area, in­clud­ing the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of Ch­e­sa­peake Beach and North Beach, ac­cord­ing to Steven Kullen, a wa­ter­shed plan­ner and grants man­ager for Calvert.

“When peo­ple live within a thou­sand feet of the wa­ter, I tend to agree that you ought to be ex­tra care­ful with what goes into the soil [be­cause of] runoff. Not ques­tion­ing that. I’m less con­vinced that the sep­tics out­side the 1,000 feet away are hav­ing any kind of ef­fect on the wa­ter­ways,” added Slaugh­en­houpt.

Ac­cord­ing to the BAT data­base, there have been 567 BAT sys­tems in­stalled at prop­er­ties in­side and out­side the crit­i­cal ar­eas of Calvert County since Jan. 1, 2013. Matt Cumers of the En­vi­ron­men­tal of Health Di­vi­sion, within the depart­ment of health, cau­tions this is an es­ti­mate.

Lo­cal health de­part­ments are del­e­gated, through MDE, the role of li­cens­ing both new sep­tic sys­tems and re­place­ment sys­tems for those that no longer ad­e­quately func­tion, ex­plained Calvert County Health Of­fi­cer Dr. Lau­rence Pol­sky.

“Our role will re­main to in­sure sep­tic sys­tems for res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial prop­er­ties in Calvert County meet state code,” Pol­sky said.

The newer tech­nol­ogy is more ex­pen­sive, rang­ing from $10,500 to $14,000, and fund­ing to off­set those costs is lim­ited. In Calvert, the to­tal BAT fig­ure in­cludes Bay Restora­tion Fund grant in­stal­la­tions. How­ever, those funds don’t cover the $60 an­nual fee in place on Mary­land prop­erty own­ers on sep­tic sys­tems and a $60 charge on an­nual sewer bills.

“It is an added cost on build­ing homes — that raises the cost of hous­ing for ev­ery­one. If you’re go­ing to buy a home and it has to have this more ex­pen­sive [BAT] sys­tem, it could put some peo­ple out of the mar­ket of be­ing able to buy their first home,” Slaugh­en­houpt said.

He ac­knowl­edged he is not sure of all the im­pli­ca­tions of the new reg­u­la­tions and whether they only af­fect new con­struc­tion, those re­mod­el­ing or those re­plac­ing a failed sep­tic sys­tem.

“I’ve asked the staff to find out all the im­pli­ca­tions and then try to get a work ses­sion sched­uled with us so we can help in­form the public of the ins and outs,” said Slaugh­en­houpt, who has al­ready re­ceived a con­stituent in­quiry re­gard­ing the reg­u­la­tions.

The state ac­knowl­edges the change in reg­u­la­tions for sep­tic sys­tems is not yet fi­nal­ized. “We’re kind of at the be­gin­ning of the process,” MDE spokesman Jay Ap­per­son said.

“We’re look­ing at this as a step for­ward,” Ap­per­son said. “Over the years there’s been a groundswell of con­cern over the reg­u­la­tion across the board for new con­struc­tion. It’s look­ing for a more bal­anced and mea­sured ap­proach in the sep­tics pro­gram.”

Ben Grum­bles, sec­re­tary of MDE, said last week, “The best ap­proach is to in­sist on clean wa­ter and en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sults, but not to lock in on one tech­nol­ogy,” but rather to give lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions more op­tions on how to main­tain and im­prove wa­ter qual­ity.

In re­liev­ing the state of the BAT sys­tems out­side of the crit­i­cal area, “There will be a small amount of ni­tro­gen load­ing over a 10-year pe­riod” from sep­tic sys­tems, but less than 1 per­cent of what is al­ready per­mit­ted. How­ever, “We’re not back­ing away from our re­spon­si­bil­ity for clean wa­ter or Ch­e­sa­peake Bay progress,” he said. “We will in­sist on con­tin­ued progress for our am­bi­tious goals on clean­ing up the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.”

The depart­ment is also re­think­ing de­ci­sions be­tween sep­tic sys­tems and sewer con­nec­tions. “In many cases coun­ties and com­mu­ni­ties are seek­ing fi­nan­cial, le­gal and reg­u­la­tory as­sis­tance to help con­nect to sewage treat­ment plants,” MDE stated. The agency “plans to hold a fo­rum in the com­ing months to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion and as­sis­tance to coun­ties and com­mu­ni­ties to help them de­cide what works best for them.”

St. Mary’s ranks fourth in the state be­hind Dorch­ester, Tal­bot and Anne Arun­del coun­ties for crit­i­cal area acreage in Mary­land. There are 43,000 acres of St. Mary’s County crit­i­cal area, ex­clud­ing Leonard­town and Patux­ent River Naval Air Sta­tion, said Sue Veith, en­vi­ron­men­tal plan­ner with the St. Mary’s County Depart­ment of Land Use and Growth Man­age­ment.

The ma­jor­ity of St. Mary’s homes use sep­tic sys­tems rather than cen­tral sewer ser­vices and since 2013, when re­quired in­stal­la­tions be­gan, 629 BAT sep­tic sys­tems have been in­stalled in St. Mary’s County, said Daryl Cal­vano, en­vi­ron­men­tal health di­rec­tor of the St. Mary’s County Health Depart­ment, with 227 of them out­side of the crit­i­cal area.

Ac­cord­ing to MDE, the re­form of the BAT sep­tic sys­tem reg­u­la­tions is one part of the depart­ment’s broader ef­fort to meet clean wa­ter goals in the most ef­fec­tive, ef­fi­cient and eq­ui­table ways.

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