O'Malley, environmentalists make argument for septic ban

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

Gov. Martin O'Malley joined environmentalists and state officials Monday to push for legislation that will ban septic tanks from new developments with five or more houses in hopes that it will concentrate growth near priority areas, preserve farmland and reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The bill aims to advance the state's smart growth policy, which began in the 1990s under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening with the establishment of "priority funding areas," or PFAs, designed to concentrate growth near existing town centers and infrastructure. But since 1997, nearly 80 percent of the state's growth has occurred outside of the PFAs, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker said.

"By definition, that's simply dumb growth," he added.

Baker called septic tanks, the most common method of sewage collection in many rural regions of the state, an outdated, expensive technology and said homes on them produce five times more pollution than those on sewer. Ten counties, including five on the Eastern Shore and all of Southern Maryland, have 50 to 85 percent of their homes on septic systems.

The bill would require developers to either hook subdivisions up to existing sewer infrastructure or install community-based systems that must meet rigid standards for nutrient removal.

O'Malley described the bill as an addendum to his efforts to clean the Chesapeake Bay and pointed to the proliferation of septic systems as one of the pollution sources left unaccounted for by his administration. The bill targets the construction of "massive 200, 300 homes" subdivisions with each unit on a septic system and will not prevent farmers from conveying lots to family members, O'Malley said.

The state has paid for the additional costs of installing nitrogen-removing septic systems since 2007 and legislation passed in 2009 has since required all homeowners within the 1,000 foot critical area to replace failing septics with nitrogen-removing systems.

O'Malley said that homes on septic produce 10 times more nitrogen than those on sewer and that, if left unchecked, pollution from septics will increase from 8 percent of the total affecting the bay to 34 percent.

"What good is a property if it sits on a dead river?" O'Malley asked. "What value is a town that sits on a river where fish no longer live? How valuable a state do we have if the bay dies?"

O'Malley pointed to the rebound in the rockfish population under former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, the comeback of the blue crab in recent years and successful oyster harvesting and cover crop programs under his administration as examples of past state initiatives that have made the bay healthier.

"The progress that we've made has not been by chance. It's been by choice," O'Malley said.

The bill is sponsored by Del. Stephen W. Lafferty (D-Baltimore) of Stoneleigh in the House of Delegates and Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) of University Park in the Senate.

The most promising community systems use spray irrigation technology, said Robert M. Summers, acting director of the Maryland Department of the Environment. Successful systems are currently servicing Riddle Farm in Worcester County and the town of Centreville, he added.

The cost to install a nitrogen-removing septic system for a new house is about $19,000, compared to a $23,000-per-unit cost to put new homes on community systems, Summers said.

But the "comparative cost" of the two might actually make spray irrigation the cheaper option. State policy requires the department to offset pollution produced by the newly-installed nitrogen-removing septics, which reduce nutrient loads by 50 percent, by upgrading old septics, which costs $13,000 per tank and brings the total cost to $32,000, Summers said.

Spray irrigation technology is different from drip irrigation, which has caused a stir in the Apple Greene community in Dunkirk, where developers have proposed a drip irrigation system for the planned shopping center. Similar systems at the Marley Run subdivision in Huntingtown and the Calvert Gateway shopping center in Dunkirk have been cited in recent years for numerous violations of their discharge permits, prompting opposition from Apple Greene residents.

Summers said the two drip irrigation systems have had "operational problems" but that there is not an issue with the technology.

Pinsky said concentrated growth is more economically viable for cash-strapped local governments who can ill afford to build new infrastructure to support suburban sprawl.

Robert Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, praised the proposal as "out of the box."

"I know first hand that the farm community is doing some heavy lifting for the bay," said Etgen, who manages a 357-acre farm on Sassafras River. "There's obviously more to be done, but they are at the table working hard for the bay and I think it's time for the residential growth community to get there too and start making some sacrifices."

O'Malley emphasized the "prospective" nature of the bill and said it is not intended to demonize developers but rather address an issue before it worsens in future years.