Governor to ease septic regulations
Nitrogen removal systems required on Southern Maryland waterfronts
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.