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MD takes breather on faulty waste systems

After discovering wastewater ponding and running off at two Southern Maryland developments using drip irrigation to dispose of their sewage, the state Department of the Environment has put a one-year hold on this alternative to septic tanks.  But activists contend the state's actions don't go far enough to ensure people and the Chesapeake Bay won't be put at risk.

Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson recently blocked approvals of any more drip irrigation systems until next August to give her staff time to study the waste treatment method and how it should be used. But she balked at calls by 16 environmental and community groups to extend the moratorium for three to five years for more extended monitoring of existing systems' performance - and to include already approved but unconstructed systems.

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In a letter earlier this month to Richard Klein, an environmental consultant working with the groups, Wilson said her inspectors had observed treated wastewater ponding on the surface of the ground and running off from Calvert Gateway and Marley Run developments in Calvert County.

She wrote that her staff had identified "operational problems," and that in one case the county's public works department was replacing a broken valve.  Operators would be required to keep better control on the flow of wastewater into the ground, which Wilson suggested was responsible for the ponding.

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But Wilson made clear in her letter that the state continued to view drip irrigation as a useful alternative waste treatment method, particularly in low-lying coastal areas where septic systems frequently fail.  The state has pemitted 13 of these systems so far.

"This is an important alternative to discharging effluent to surface waters and the Chesapeake Bay," she wrote. With the additional precautions being required now by the state, she expressed confidence such systems could be operated safely.

Klein, president of Community and Environmental Defense Services in Owings Mills, welcomed MDE's action but contended it wasn't enough to ensure public health or water quality.  In his own letter this week, he pointed out that state inspectors found problems this summer at a third drip irrigation system in use at Eagles Nest campground in Berlin on the Eastern Shore.

Concerned by problems at other drip irrigation systems, community groups Klein represents have long been fighting a commercial development called Shoppes at Apple Green that proposes to use the same disposal method for its wastewater.  Klein questioned why MDE's one-year hold on approving new systems does not extend to those like Apple Green that have received state approval but have yet to be built.

Klein wrote that "our goal is not to end the use of drip-irrigation, but to find a way to reap the full benefits offered by this technology."   He said, however, that residents want its safety proven, contending that the drip fields receiving wastewater could be within 50 feet of homes and within 100 feet of water ways.

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