O'Malley forms task force to study curbs on septic sprawl

Gov. Martin O'Malley created a task force today to figure out how to curb pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from septic systems, saying he hoped the study would help overcome "fears" of the legislation he had introduced this year that would have banned major housing developments relying on them.

"We must find a way to grow in a clean, green, more sustainable way," O'Malley said prior to signing an executive order establishing the task force. He held the signing ceremony at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center on the Severn River, where household septic systems account for roughly 30 percent of the nitrogen fouling the water.

Currently, about 411,000 Maryland households are on septic systems. Although a relatively small source of nitrogen pollution baywide compared with sewage plants or farm runoff, septic leakage of the harmful nutrient could increase by 36 percent over the next 25 years if nothing is done, state officials project. 

O'Malley's bid to curb major housing developments on septic systems failed to get out of committee in Annapolis after rural lawmakers, farmers and developers raised an outcry, warning that it would throttle growth and cost jobs in the state's rural and suburban counties.

The governor was joined by Del. Steve Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat who had sponsored the septic curb legislation the governor wanted, and by Del. Maggie McIntosh, head of the House Environmental Matters Committee who had tabled the measure for further study.

McIntosh, a Baltimore city Democrat, said she hoped the study would take a broader look at how septic systems fit into the state's Smart Growth policies.  

The task force is to include members of the House and Senate, state secretaries of the environment, natural resources, agriculture and planning, local government officials, environmental activists, scientists, developers and farmers.  It's ordered to report its findings by Dec. 1, a month before the next session of the General Assembly.

Not coincidentally, the Maryland State Builders Association released ar report today estimating that Maryland's overall efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, not just septic curbs, would cost the state's taxpayers, businesses and consumers $21 billion by 2017, trimming some 65,000 jobs from the economy.

(House with septic system under construction in Baltimore County.  Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

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