Gov. Hogan proposes financial assistance for some septic system owners

Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed legislation that would cut fees and offer new financial assistance for some Marylanders whose homes are connected to septic systems.

The measure would reward residents who pay to upgrade their septic systems with new technology that reduces the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants that can seep through the ground into waterways. Those residents would no longer have to pay a $60 annual fee (known by many as the “flush tax”) that funds bay cleanup efforts, including wastewater treatment plant and septic upgrades and planting of cover crops.

The technology is key in reducing Chesapeake Bay pollution that comes from septic systems, one of the estuary’s key sources of nutrients that throw ecology off balance and lead to low oxygen levels in its waters.

In 2016, Hogan rolled back a requirement adopted under former Gov. Martin O’Malley to allow residents outside of environmentally critical waterfront areas to opt out of installing the technology, which can cost at least $10,000 more than older septic systems.

The new legislation would exempt any resident from the fee, so long as they did not receive any state or federal assistance on their septic upgrades, regardless of whether they were required to under state law.

Representatives for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation criticized the proposal because they said even the most high-tech of septic systems are responsible for more pollution than upgraded wastewater treatment plants. Elaine Lutz, a staff attorney for the foundation, called the Bay Restoration Fund — the repository for the “flush tax” money — “one of the most wildly successful programs” in Chesapeake cleanup.

Lutz questioned why fees need to be waived for residents in the critical areas, where the system upgrades are required. And she said septic systems are already behind in meeting goals of reducing their impact on bay pollution.

“We typically don’t subsidize people for doing what they’re required to do,” Lutz said. “It’s not really a time or a place to be reducing the amount of money and effort going into septic pollution reduction.”

It was not immediately clear how many septic system owners would be eligible for the fee exemption. There are 420,000 septic systems in Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment, and the department says it has upgraded more than 12,000 of those with the new pollution-reducing technology.

The Bay Restoration Fund paid out about $80 million for septic upgrade projects in 2014, according to the most recent report on the program posted on MDE’s website.

Hogan’s legislation would also allow residents to receive assistance from the fund to have their septic tanks pumped out. The tanks hold solid waste, and they need to be pumped every few years to keep systems working efficiently. Pumping typically costs several hundred dollars.

The bill would also slightly reduce the share of the fund that goes toward septic projects. Of the money that comes from fees paid by septic system owners, 60 percent goes to assist in septic projects. The other 40 percent — $58 million in 2014 — goes to farmers to plant cover crops to reduce offseason fertilizer runoff. The bill would change that breakdown to 50/50.

Bay program officials said they were not aware of any data that suggests a change is needed in funding septic systems versus cover crops.

In a statement, Hogan called the legislation “common sense regulatory reforms” that encourage proper septic system maintenance and agricultural best practices.

“It’s incentivizing people to take action,” Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said. “This administration always believes that incentives are the most effective course of action.”

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