Maryland Senate kills, then revives, bill to reinstate O'Malley rule on septic systems

The Maryland Senate on Thursday killed but later revived a bill that would reinstate Gov. Martin O'Malley's 2012 rule requiring installation of advanced technology in homes built on septic systems, even when they are located outside the "critical areas" that border the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The legislation initially failed a preliminary test vote, 23-22. Then, Sen. Ulysses Currie, who had voted with the majority, moved to reconsider that vote. The matter was then put off until Friday.


The earlier vote was a victory for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who issued a rule last year rescinding his Democratic predecessor's regulation. Even though the reconsideration motion could bring the measure back to the Senate floor, the vote showed that the Senate's majority Democrats are far from marshaling a veto-proof majority to put the O'Malley rule back on the books.

To overturn a governor's veto, a three-fifths majority vote is needed in both houses of the General Assembly.


Ten Democrats, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, joined with all 13 Republicans present on Thursday to vote against the bill sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat. Two senators were absent, one Democrat and one Republican.

Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he intends to stick with his "no" vote, despite his motion to reconsider.

Conway, who chairs the Senate committee that deals with environmental bills, predicted she would be able to find the votes to keep the bill alive. But she conceded she might have to accept some amendments that would weaken the legislation.

The rejection vote came after a debate in which Republican senators, backed by moderate Democrats, argued that there are more effective, less costly approaches to reducing pollution than requiring the more expensive "best available technology" septic systems for new construction or replacement systems for homes outside the critical areas. Hogan's rule left the requirements in place in critical areas within 1,000 feet of the bay or tributaries.

Opponents' concerns revolved around the cost of the advanced septic systems, estimated at up to $7,500 greater than conventional systems. Senators from rural areas contended that the extra cost could push the cost of homes out of reach, especially for first-time and young buyers.

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"Perhaps there's a better way to skin the cat here," said Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat. He pointed to Virginia, saying that it mandates that conventional septic systems be cleaned out every three years. "Wouldn't that be a better alternative?"

Conway contended that the cost would balance out over time because the advanced systems require less frequent pumping. She said state aid was available to some, but not all, people building a new home or replacing a failing conventional septic system outside the critical areas.

A companion bill filed in the House received a hearing Feb. 15 but has not been voted on in committee.


O'Malley's decision to impose the rule was welcomed by environmentalists but drew opposition from some county elected officials who contended it would block economic development.

"We heard your voices loud and clear to take action on this issue, " Hogan told the Maryland Association of Counties in Ocean City last August.