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State and local officials urge septic cleanup

The Baltimore Sun

While Maryland has made progress to improve its sewage treatment plants, it needs to do much more to reduce pollution from the hundreds of thousands of septic systems that are fouling state waterways, state and local officials told legislators yesterday.

"Maryland has Porsche waste-water treatment plants and Pinto septic systems," state Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall told members of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Hall and the deputy secretaries of the departments of natural resources, agriculture and environment addressed the panel as part of a wide-ranging briefing on efforts to clean up the bay.

Officials from the four agencies have been working together as part of Gov. Martin O'Malley's BayStat initiative, which is looking at cost-effective ways to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The administration officials talked about the need for better planning, more money for cover crops and a continuing focus on reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants.

But it was the septic-system issue that seemed to capture the committee's attention, particularly when Robert M. Summers, deputy environmental secretary, explained how money that septic-system users are paying into the "flush tax" is being spent.

The agency has collected about $30 million from septic users, but it has upgraded only about 700 septic systems -- a small fraction of the 420,000 across the state.

"The potential here is huge," Summers said. "We know that our technology can reduce at least 50 percent of the loads from septic systems. And that is a huge reduction."

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, reminded the panel of an attempt eight years ago to require nitrogen-removal technology for septic systems. Real estate agents and homebuilders opposed the measure, and it failed.

Since then, Bobo said, local governments have been able to come up with their own standards for septic systems. Her county has a less stringent standard than the state bill would have required, she said. "I don't think we should be able to get away with that," Bobo said.

About an hour after the administration officials' briefing, Anne Arundel County Public Works Director Ronald E. Bowen told the committee that nitrogen pollution from septic system discharges in his county is exceeding that from the sewage treatment plants, which serve thousands of homes in the county.

Septic systems on waterside properties classified as "critical area" in the county are discharging 334,500 pounds of nitrogen per year, much of that leeching into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, Bowen said.

"It's going directly into the groundwater. It's a direct connection," Bowen said. "Something needs to be done."

He suggested to the committee that it consider legislation to increase the flexibility of flush tax money so that local governments could use the pay-in from septic-system owners to hook homes up to public water and sewer rather than just to upgrade septic systems.

He also suggested designating some of the $50 million in the new bay trust fund for septic upgrades. The legislature has not decided how that money will be spent.

rona.kobell@baltsun.com.

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