Farmers, builders and rural officials joined Tuesday in blasting new state environmental regulations that would limit growers' use of fertilizer and require more costly but less polluting septic systems on all new homes not connected to sewers.

O'Malley administration officials appeared before the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee, a joint House-Senate panel, to explain and defend rules they said are needed to reduce nutrient pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay.

But those affected by the regulations complained they were costly, harmful to their livelihoods and unnecessary. And rural lawmakers on the panel objected that the septic regulation represented an end run around the General Assembly, which had balked at requiring less-polluting septic systems three years ago.

"It is in the legislature that we should do this," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican who represents the upper Eastern Shore.

Shortly after the legislature adjourned in April, on the heels of adopting a new law restricting where development can occur using septic systems, the Maryland Department of the Environment proposed requiring that all new septic systems installed in the state be capable of removing nitrogen from wastewater.

Households using conventional septic systems leak up to 10 times as much bay-fouling nitrogen into ground water and nearby streams as does a household hooked up to a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant, officials say.

State law has required the installation of nitrogen-removing septic systems in the "critical area" bordering the bay for the past three years, but Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers said a statewide requirement is needed to reduce the pollution generated by future growth in rural areas not served by sewer systems.

The nitrogen-removing septic systems have cost $12,000 to $13,000 when replacing old systems in existing homes, Summers said, but officials figure the cost of putting them in a new home could go as low as $8,000.

But Del. Charles Otto, a Republican who represents Somerset County, said his constituents are among the poorest in Maryland and the higher cost could be enough to keep them from buying a new home.

Others, such as Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick, questioned the science, noting that he's allowed to have a drinking-water well within 100 feet of a conventional septic system.

Members of a state builders' group asked for development projects in the pipeline to be "grandfathered" from the more costly systems.

Farmers challenged proposed regulations limiting the use of animal manure and sewage sludge to fertilizer crops. The rules, explained Agriculture Secretary Arthur "Buddy" Hance, are meant to further reduce the nutrients in fertilizer that wash or seep off farm fields. They would bar any winter application of manure or sludge and limit it in fall.

But the Maryland Farm Bureau called the rules, which among other things bar farmers from putting fertilizer within a certain distance of waterways, "the largest taking of private property in the last quarter century." The bureau also warned that another requirement to work manure and sludge into the soil rather than spread it on the surface could increase runoff and pollution.

Local officials likewise have complained about the costs of having to store or haul elsewhere sludge from municipal sewage treatment plants.

Hance argued that officials have tried to make the rules more flexible, and he said farmers could apply for federal and state funds to cover 88 percent of the costs of manure storage sheds. The deadline for complying with the rule barring winter application is staggered out to 2020.

Environmentalists argued that the farm rule does not go far enough to help restore the bay. They pressed for eight changes to tighten the limits.

The committee does not have the power to block the regulations, but it can signal lawmakers' approval or disapproval.

Tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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