Septic pollution woes divide Kent Island

STEVENSVILLE — — Residents of Kent Island are never far from the water. That's what drew many of them to the largest island in the Chesapeake Bay, where they're close to boating, fishing and all nature's bounty.

But for the mostly tidy cottages, bungalows and other homes built decades ago on the southern end of this low-lying island, there's just one problem. Far from the nearest sewer line, they all rely on septic systems to dispose of their waste.


Four out of five homes here are pumping water-fouling nitrogen into the bay every time they flush, Queen Anne's County health officials estimate. Some even leak raw sewage into their yards or drainage ditches during wet weather.

Now county officials see a potential solution: linking more of the island to a sewage treatment plan. But that plan threatens to create another problem — increased development — and the issue is dividing island residents.


"It's crazy," says David Olds, the Queen Anne's County commissioner who represents Kent Island. "You're damned if you do, damned if you don't."

County officials voted last month to seek state funding to connect 1,500 homes on southern Kent Island to the county's wastewater treatment plant, which was upgraded years ago to take out the nitrogen contributing to the bay's "dead zone."

Extending a sewer line nearly eight miles down the island to reach them all could cost upwards of $70 million — up to $40,000 per existing household if they had to pay for it. That's far more than many residents are willing or able to spend, which is why county officials say they need help with the project.

But many residents also fear that a sewer line could open the island up to more intense development. As many as 1,600 vacant lots there have never been built on because they were deemed unsuitable for septic systems.

The issue is a divisive one, with sewer proponents deriding opponents as "no-growthers" and opponents suggesting profit rather than public health motivates sewer supporters.

It's also a tough test for the state's twin commitments to clean up the bay and preserve rural land through "smart growth." Gov. Martin O'Malley is seeking to curtail new development on septic systems as a way to do both, but rural officials and real estate interests are bucking him.

In this case, while a sewer might alleviate one source of pollution, more development there could increase the amount of lawn fertilizer, animal waste and other pollution washing off driveways and yards. It also would add traffic to Route 8, the two-lane road that is the lower island's only link with the rest of the Eastern Shore.

State Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers calls it "a very difficult choice." The state has helped counties fund sewer hookups for failing septic systems, but none this large. There isn't enough money to go around for all the needs, he said, and in any case the state doesn't pay for sewer that would allow new growth.


There are 420,000 septic systems in Maryland, and planners project another 120,000 could be added over the next 25 years. They account for 8 percent of the water-fouling nutrients getting into the bay, but there are so many septic systems along some bay tributaries that they furnish a quarter or more of the nitrogen.

A task force appointed by the governor is studying the future of septic-based development in Maryland and is expected to make a recommendation by December. Kent Island, though, is a legacy of development mapped out decades ago.

Speculators carved much of the southern island into building lots shortly after the first Bay Bridge was built in 1952. Many lots were snapped up as weekend or summer retreats, but over the years the small homes built here have been converted to year-round residences. That's part of the problem, health officials say, because septic systems that may work fine during relatively dry summers malfunction when spring rains raise the water table to or near the surface of the land.

A septic system relies on the soil to dispose of wastewater. Sewage is flushed into an underground tank, and flows out into the ground through a "drain field," a network of pipes with holes in them. Such systems can eliminate disease-carrying bacteria, but not the nitrogen and phosphorus in waste that fertilize plants — or feed algae blooms in the bay.

In lower Kent Island, though, the water table is so close to the surface that in wet weather some septic systems become flooded and wastewater backs up into homes or ponds in yards.

John Nickerson, the county's environmental health director, said he feels caught in the middle. He's refused for years to approve new septic systems on the southern end of the island, effectively blocking new homes from being built. The county's been sued, he said, but the courts have upheld the ban.


He's also angered some residents by insisting that improperly functioning septic systems in their communities pose a health threat that can only be fixed by connecting the existing homes to public sewer.

A block-by-block survey in the 1990s found indications that 20 percent of the septic systems in Romancoke and Kent Island Estates were malfunctioning, Nickerson said, with sewage seen in a nearby drainage ditch or on the surface. But there haven't been any documented illnesses linked to contact with sewage, he acknowledged, which fuels the skepticism of those opposed to the sewer.

"Almost anyone down here will say, 'Oh, my septic system is fine,' " said Richard Sells, community association president for Kent Island Estates, which has 650 homes and 275 vacant lots. Many residents are retired and can't afford to spend $10,000 or more for either fixing their septic systems or hooking up to sewer.

Sells, 71, is a retired corporate consultant who moved to Kent Island 15 years ago. He supports the proposed sewer line, arguing it's the only viable solution to the area's septic problems. He's a Realtor now, though, which in some residents' eyes means he stands to sell more homes if a sewer line comes in.

He insists the septic problems are real. Whenever it rains hard, he said, you can see septic pumpout trucks running up and down Route 8.

Nick Stoer, a member of a citizens' advisory board that studied Kent Island's septic problems, dissented from the panel's recommendation this summer to extend the sewer. He contended such a big-ticket project is not needed to fix the problems and said he's worried about the "snowball effect" of growth on the island if sewer service is available.


"If you build all those additional houses, that puts additional stress on the road system, the school system," he said. He questioned whether officials have looked hard enough at alternative treatment systems.

A variety of innovative techniques were used in the 1980s to deal with poorly functioning septic systems on Anne Arundel County's Mayo peninsula, said Pio Lombardo, a Massachusetts engineering consultant who designed them. But without a detailed analysis, Lombardo couldn't say whether any on-site treatment technology would work on Kent Island.

The state has funds, raised through a $30 annual fee every septic tank owner pays, to help homeowners replace old septic systems with more advanced ones that can remove more nitrogen. The state has funded 214 of those in Queen Anne's County, 76 on Kent Island, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. The fee raised about $8.2 million this year, and all of it has been allocated, according to MDE spokesman Jay Apperson.

But Nickerson, the county health official, said at least some of those "best available technology" systems aren't functioning as well as they could. The water table is just too high in some places, and in others the small yards force the systems to be installed closer to the water than is recommended, allowing more pollution to seep into the bay.

A study done for the county by a North Carolina State University expert discouraged trying more advanced septic systems there because of their cost ($25,000 or more in some cases) and the need to maintain them more diligently than conventional systems. The report suggested possibly clustering homes on small treatment systems, though, an option rejected by the advisory committee.

"Sewer is the only answer we have," said Steven J. Arentz, president of the Queen Anne's five-member board of commissioners. But he said it's unlikely the project can go forward without outside funds. And he said he doubted that all 1,600 vacant lots could or would be built on even if sewer service was provided.


Some have suggested the county extend the sewer to serve existing homes only. But officials say they have a legal opinion suggesting many — perhaps half — of the vacant lots still would have a right to hook up, and skeptics wonder how lasting such a restriction would be.

The vote to go forward was 3 to 2, though, reflecting divisions within the community.

Mary Kerr, 78, said her septic system works fine, though she knows some have failed. Still, she's worried about how the community would be changed by sewer-enabled growth — with traffic, with the need for more school construction and with increased runoff.

Her family has owned waterfront property there for 50 years, first as a summer place and now her retirement home. The lot cost $600 back then, she recalled.

"I love this place," she said. "I go out in a kayak and I look around and I say to myself, 'How in the name of heaven can people not be fully concerned with keeping this beautiful place?' "

State Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall said he plans to sit down shortly with his environmental counterpart and discuss what, if anything, the state can or should do about Kent Island. Whatever they decide, he said, this ought to be a reminder to Marylanders of the problems that come with developing on septic systems.


"If you're in a hole, quit digging," he said. Septic systems are "causing problems already. We need to be thinking much harder about where and how many newer ones we put in the ground."