www.baltimoresun.com/explore/harford/opinion-talk/ph-ag-edit-septic-1228-20121227,0,1916417.story

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Editorial: Old-style septic system regulations need modernizing, but only for new construction

EDITORIAL FROM THE AEGIS

5:13 PM EST, December 27, 2012

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As more people occupy the same amount of land, things change. A generation or two ago, it was perfectly OK in Harford County to burn garbage and maintain a residential dumping pit on a rural property.

It isn't all that long ago that the sewage system and stormwater system in Havre de Grace were one in the same, both emptying into the Susquehanna River largely untreated. Indeed, the city continues to deal with issues of separating the storm drains from sewerage lines under the roadways.

It hasn't been that many years since the Maryland Department of Natural Resources filled in the communal outhouse style comfort station that graced the western side of Stafford Road. Heck, private privies remain in use in remote camping and park areas throughout the country, though increasingly they're being phased out.

There's a reason for the demise of night soil production stations, back yard garbage dumps and bans on burning trash and yard waste: There are just too many people and, if everyone decided to use the disposal methods that prevailed well into the mid 1900s, the smell would be oppressive, and the effect on ground water would be sickening.

Something that is likely to go the way of outhouses is the standby version of the residential septic system that has been in use and largely unchanged at least since the 1950s. State-of-the-art technology for its day, a septic system is something of a recycling wonder. It consists of a settling tank where solids flushed from a home sink out of the water that carried them there. Water exits the system through a drain field into the nearby soil. If everything is working properly and the system isn't overloaded, the water ends up being cleansed by the action of bacteria and other natural forces.

Starting Jan. 1, new, more strict, regulations regarding septic systems for new houses built away from access to public sewer systems will go into effect, and the regulations promise to add $11,000 to $14,000 to the cost of a new home built on a well and septic system in Harford County. The new state law demands septic systems for new homes be built using the "best available technology," or BAT.

From a certain perspective, it's hard to see why the buyers of new homes on septic systems wouldn't be demanding the best available technology when it comes to waste disposal. As a rule – and there are exceptions – homes served by septic systems also draw their water from wells. While theoretically, there's not supposed to be any crossover between the two systems, in practice, sometimes well and septic fields overlap.

Reality being what it is, however, questions about septic system technology take a back seat to square footage, storage space and curb appeal when people are buying houses, so often the most inexpensive available technology allowed by law is what ends up being used. No change in law, means no change in industry standard.

Is a change in the industry standard called for? Probably so. While septic systems have proven to be largely reliable, they have their problems, and a failed or marginal septic system has the potential to pollute nearby groundwater and springs with excess nutrients, which often manifest themselves as bright green algae blooms in standing water and nearby creeks.

Though the increase in the cost of building a home to the new standard could be viewed as steep, it constitutes about 3 to 3.5 percent of the cost of a $400,000 home, which is at the low end of the price range of what houses in rural, septic-only, areas of Harford County are being listed.

Meanwhile, the cost of hooking into public water and sewer systems has increased substantially in recent years as the cost of treating sewage and building the facilities to do the job, has increased.

If the law going into effect demanded people on existing septic systems upgrade immediately, or even when the condition of their system dictates a change, it would be unfair in the extreme. The state has no business overturning what has been, and remains, a viable way of dealing with residential sewage.

The law going into effect, however, affects only new construction, and so long as this remains the case, it is a sensible way of moving development policy forward in a way that helps protect valuable water resources.