Rollback of septic system requirements raises questions about bay impact

A rollback of septic system requirements in Maryland is raising questions about potential harm to the bay.

Some environmental advocates worry that a state plan to roll back regulations for septic systems in parts of Maryland could stall efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

But proponents of Gov. Larry Hogan's proposal say the O'Malley-era rules, which require septics with advanced technology everywhere in Maryland, offer little or undetermined benefit to the environment, while burdening homeowners and making housing less affordable.

Hogan announced the new rules Saturday in a speech to the Maryland Association of Counties in Ocean City. They allow counties to decide whether to require septic systems with so-called "best available technology" outside environmentally critical areas, including land within 1,000 feet of Maryland tidal waters or wetlands such as the Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic coastal bays and their tidal tributaries.

The proposed policy offers a more effective approach while reducing regulatory burdens, Maryland's environment secretary said Monday.

"This is a regulatory step that benefits the bay and the business community across the state, by providing a flexible, results-based approach to septic systems," said Secretary Ben Grumbles, whose department drafted the regulations and sent them Monday to the legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review.

The administration wants to eliminate requirements approved in 2012 under then-Gov. Martin O'Malley that required new septic systems to use technology that reduces by half the amount of nitrogen being released into groundwater.

Traditional septic systems have no controls for nutrients found in sewage waste such as nitrogen, which leads to algae blooms, fish kills and dead zones in the bay and tributaries, said Alison Prost, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Reverting to traditional systems would make it necessary to look for other ways to prevent pollution and reach and maintain nitrogen reduction goals by a 2015 target, she said.

"A stream that is far from the bay might still have a nitrogen problem, and allowing a traditional septic means that [nitrogen] may end up in a stream that's already suffering," she said. "It's going to make it harder to keep that river clean if we don't control the source. ... We are counting on there being less pollution from septic systems. Reducing pollution from our wastewater treatment plants and septics is a critical component of not only meeting our cleanup goals but maintaining our progress."

Grumbles stressed that watershed protections remain in place. The state plans to combine regulatory reforms with stronger enforcement and oversight of failing septic systems throughout the state while also considering ways to help communities and homeowners hook up to public sewer systems.

"We're still insisting on clean water," Grumbles said. "This is a balanced and targeted approach. We're fully committed to clean water progress and meeting the goals and requirements of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup."

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said it's difficult to assess the environmental effect of the rule change.

"There's no question that the advanced technology — the best available technology — releases less nitrogen into ground water, and so… if you roll back on that requirement, you've got more nitrogen being released. The question is how significant is that. It depends on location to a certain degree."

In general, reducing the nitrogen load is more important in critical areas closer to the bay, he said. But, he added, streams could be affected as well.

Septic systems contribute a small fraction of total nitrogen to the bay, he said. But their use is growing along with new development, and achieving nitrogen reduction goals requires attention to all pollution sources.

Those who have opposed the advanced septic system requirement argue that it's unclear how much nitrogen is making its way into waterways outside the critical areas. They say it varies depending on topography, soil type and proximity to water.

"It is very questionable how much impact, if any, the repeal outside of the critical area will have on actual nitrogen infiltration in the bay," said Leslie Knapp Jr., legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties.

Knapp said nitrogen pollution from septic systems in the state accounts for 7 percent to 8 percent of the state's total nitrogen load going into the bay, with much more generated by agriculture, wastewater treatment plants and stormwater runoff.

The organization has taken no position on either the current regulations or the proposed changes, said Michael Sanderson, the group's executive director.

"But I do expect some county officials to support this change," Sanderson said. "Many counties are very concerned that the piled-up costs of multiple state mandates on housing construction end up compromising their affordable housing stock."

The Maryland Building Industry Association doesn't question the need for tighter rules for critical areas, said Katie Maloney, the group's chief lobbyist. Outside those areas, however, she said, "it's not clear there's a bang for the buck."

Under current rules, home renovation projects that fit the definition of new construction require a septic system retrofit, which can cost $18,000 to $20,000, Maloney said. Installing a new advanced-technology system can cost $10,000 to $12,000 more than a traditional system. State grants that help pay for upgrades have not been available to homeowners outside the critical areas.

"It was a significant cost in our rural areas, in particular when remodelers are doing upgrade work." she said.

"In particular in areas that have a great need for affordable housing on the shore and in Western [Maryland], it was a significant burden."

But Mona Becker, chair of the environmental studies department at McDaniel College, said even areas deemed non-critical need protection.

"Everything is interconnected," she said. "All of our surface water and our ground water, even in the far reaches of Carroll County, will make its way toward the bay in some form or another. ... With the exception of the extreme western part of the state, the state is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

"It is more expensive to install some of this best technology, but in the end it's really best for the environment and really best for the Chesapeake Bay."

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