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The septic backslide

Gov. Larry Hogan's recent announcement that he intends to loosen Maryland's requirements for newly-installed septic systems is a worrisome development. While septic tanks and drainage fields are hardly the primary source of pollution in Maryland waterways, such regulatory backtracking raises an uncomfortable question: If rural homeowners and developers are get a free pass, who will pay in the end?

The answer isn't so clear.

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First, a brief lesson in small-scale underground wastewater treatment systems. Common in rural areas, septic systems provide the most basic of services — whatever is flushed or drained from inside the average home lands in an underground storage tank where solids settle (and decay) and liquids eventually drain through the soil.

One of the shortcomings of such systems is that they introduce far more pollution into the immediate environment — chiefly nitrogen, a nutrient that when produced in excess is a chief contributor to the Chesapeake Bay's woes — than do homes hooked up to central sewer systems more common to cities, towns and suburbs. Four years ago, then-Gov. Martin O'Malley introduced regulations requiring all new septic systems to use the "best available technology" (BAT), meaning they would extract more nitrogen from the effluent (using such devices as pumps or grinders to encourage beneficial bacterial growth).

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What Governor Hogan and the state Department of the Environment have proposed is to require BAT technology only in the "critical areas" immediately adjacent to the Chesapeake and the state's coastal bays or in large systems. Why? Because BAT septic systems are costly — as much as $10,000 to $20,000 more than a standard septic system — and rural counties have been complaining for years about how the rules have deterred growth.

Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles insists that the new rules submitted Monday to the legislature's regulatory oversight committee will not lead to greater overall pollution. That's because, he says, the reforms will be pursued in concert with two other efforts — a greater crackdown on failing septic systems and an outreach by the state to encourage communities to switch from septic to central sewer systems.

That sounds great, particularly forcing property owners to replace failing septic systems, which is long overdue, but environmentalists harbor doubts. If Mr. Hogan is so quick to capitulate to local concerns over new septic system costs, what confidence can Marylanders have that he will stand firm on enforcement, which is just as likely to prove controversial? And why should MDE expect more septic users to switch to central sewer systems when the state has just reduced the cost of a new septic system by thousands of dollars?

That brings us back to the most important question of all: Who pays? Under terms of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-enforced pollution diet — Maryland and other states must significant lower nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants. Loosening septic rules could lead to more stringent regulations in other areas, tougher rules on stormwater containment, for instance, or on agricultural runoff. By MDE's owner estimate, the proposed septic rules will increase nitrogen flow into Maryland waterways by 50,000 pounds over the next decade.

There's also a matter of fairness. A home connected to a central sewer line contributes about one-fourth as much pollution into the Chesapeake Bay as one using a traditional septic system. Why shouldn't all Marylanders be held equally accountable? Just as troubling is the potential impact on local rivers and creeks: In places like the Eastern Shore, septic systems are a major source of water pollution, and the new rules could prove disastrous on the local level.

Admittedly, such changes won't single-handedly decide the fate of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, not when septic pollution accounts for perhaps 5 percent of the overall problem. But the danger is that the backsliding will continue. What will local governments whine about next? Sediment controls? The flush tax? Upgrading sewage treatment plants?

Meanwhile, the Maryland General Assembly is unlikely to ride to the rescue. The legislature twice had an opportunity to codify the tougher septic rules into law during the O'Malley years and twice rejected it. Perhaps, as Secretary Grumbles insists, the new rules will simply lead to "smarter" and "more bang for the buck" pollution controls and not a net loss for Bay cleanup efforts. But experience suggests relaxing pollution rules seldom leads to a cleaner environment.

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