A war on pollution, not rural Maryland

Don't be surprised if longtime "poop warriors" along theChesapeake Bay'sthickly populated Western Shore are not sympathetic to claims that builders in still-rural parts of the watershed should have unlimited use of septic tanks.

Those backyard sewage disposal devices send pollutants into the ground, where they can leach into waterways and sometimes drinking water supplies. In Maryland, at least, they are the fastest-growing source of bay pollution, so the long practice of one-by-one septic tank approvals, common throughout the bay area, doesn't make sense to those at the cleanup end.


"What we really need to be doing is taking a much more holistic view of the complete picture," said Ronald Bowen, public works director for Anne Arundel County. "How is it we can continue to co-exist, continue to grow economically, while at the same time working toward addressing the sins of the past?"

Maryland Gov.Martin O'Malley, who is waging an uphill battle to curb the use of septic tanks for new development, uses the county's plight to make his case. He says the sorry state of Anne Arundel's dirty rivers — where nearly one third of the pollution comes from septic tanks — provides a powerful warning to still-pristine areas.


"That's the future of this Chesapeake Bay if we don't get a handle on the proliferation of massive septic housing developments," Mr. O'Malley told reporters. "The chunk of pollution that will come from a growing population increasingly relying on septic systems, rather than wastewater treatment plants, will outstrip the progress that we are making in other areas."

To meet federal bay pollution cleanup requirements, Mr. Bowen proposes to retire half of the 40,000 septic tanks serving homes along his county's 530 miles of sensitive shoreline. The price tag of $760 million includes several techniques, such as the creation of new cluster treatment plants that serve only one community.

Mr. Bowen also needs $270 million to upgrade the county's seven sewage treatment plants and more than $1 billion to restore stream beds and otherwise deal with storm water runoff. Altogether, that's almost twice the annual county budget. Like most other watershed counties with similar needs, Anne Arundel doesn't have the money.

Mr. O'Malley hopes to help local governments meet at least some of these costs by persuading the state legislature to raise the "flush tax" on sewer and septic users.

Of course, no one's happy about tax or fee increases. But proposed curbs on septic tank use are also drawing fire for a different reason. Rural legislators assert their constituents have a right to seek profits from land development. They contend that curbs on septic tanks are a backdoor tactic to serve another O'Malley goal — limiting growth.

Those legislators don't seem troubled by the environmental damage that results from continued rural development and a reliance on septic tanks. Nor do they seem concerned that every taxpayer will share in the price of roads, schools and the other services new development needs.

It's easy to understand the complaint of bayside homeowners with failing septic systems who are suddenly confronted with a bill of $20,000 or more to connect to a sewer system or put in a new, state-of-the-art septic tank. But remember, the cost of septic tank pollution to the rest of us in terms of harmful bacteria in the water supply — we're talking about us now, not fish — is perhaps beyond calculation.

"If we want to continue the quality of life we have here … it's going to be more expensive," said Robert Summers, Maryland's secretary of the environment. But without a clean water supply, "we have no economy."


Like Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania both have programs to encourage property owners to upgrade their septic waste technology to the newest nitrogen- and phosphorus-removing systems.

"I think it's momentous," said Allen Knapp, director of onsite sewage and water services for the Virginia Department of Health. "Instead of just issuing permits, we are now trying to achieve a potential outcome: a cleaner environment."

But Maryland is the most densely populated of the bay watershed states, and it seems to have made the most use of septic systems to serve summer cottages and now mini-mansions along the bay.

"There is nothing easy about what we're trying to do," Mr. Bowen said.

So, that's the dilemma. Most of us are selfish and short-sighted. We want what we want right now and choose not to think about the future. But just for the sake of argument, wouldn't it be a lot better to avoid the problem while we still can than to expect future generations to try to fix it?

Maybe that's too much to ask.


Karen Hosler, a former editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun, is a reporter, commentator and talk show host in Baltimore. This article is distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.