Opposition to septic cleanup plan grows

Governor's idea to lower bay nitrogen too pricey, some say

February 22, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

OLIVET -- The view of Solomons Harbor from Page Joy's septic drainfield could hardly be more picturesque, but the pristine water that laps the shore in winter can turn funky in the summer.

"I don't go out on the water anymore. In the summertime down here, it's terrible," says Joy. Scum clogs the cove behind his house, he says, and "green-looking fuzzy stuff" grows on the bottom of the boats.

Scientists say those are telltale signs of an algal bloom, the product of nitrogen pollution linked to the high density of septic systems along the shores of the harbor at the southern tip of Calvert County.

If Gov. Parris N. Glendening gets his way, Joy and thousands of other Marylanders who rely on septic systems could end up spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce their pollution of the state's waters.

The governor has made septic system cleanup the centerpiece of his environmental agenda this year, prompting a sharp counterattack from homeowners and industries all over the state that feel threatened by the proposal.

As a result, septic tanks, underground processors of human waste used by 400,000 Maryland homes, have emerged as one of the most contentious topics of the 2000 legislative session.

"The cost of this will run over $1 billion for both the state and the individual homeowners," says Mary C. Antoun, executive vice president of the Maryland Association of Realtors.

Glendening's proposed legislation would require homebuilders and residents in environmentally sensitive areas to use an expensive new nitrogen-reduction technology when they install a new septic system or replace a failing one. The law would take effect in 2004.

The administration says the technology will cost an extra $3,000 to $7,000 on top of the roughly $5,000 it takes to install a conventional septic system. Opponents say it will cost more, driving up the cost of new housing and putting an unreasonable burden on homeowners in rural areas of the state.

The governor's proposed bill received a skeptical reception in legislative hearings last week as lobbyists for farmers, homebuilders, Realtors and members of other industries mobilized opposition to the measure. But Glendening has muscled difficult environmental proposals through the General Assembly before -- notably his 1997 Smart Growth initiative and his 1998 program to control farm runoff in the wake of fish kills that scientists linked to outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria.

If Glendening prevails this time, Joy figures he is among those most likely to be affected by the septic system bill.

The retired Defense Department worker's home lies in a designated "critical area," and his septic system is 25 years old -- about the age when drainfields clog and tanks need to be replaced. A tax credit in the bill could defray 70 percent of his out-of-pocket costs for the technology, but his earnings are too high to qualify for the grant the governor is proposing for low-income households.

Waterside residents elsewhere in Calvert County, where 85 percent of the homes are on septic systems, are acutely aware of the governor's proposal. Many are more hostile to the bill than Joy.

Jacqueline Hoff, a retiree in nearby Drum Point, says she and her neighbors "will fight it all the way."

"It's fine for Mr. Glendening. He makes a lot of money, but some of us live on fixed incomes," she says.

Like many other bay-front communities -- many of them on the peninsulas of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties -- Drum Point's homes are built on postage-stamp lots that would be considered too small for septic systems today. Many of the homes were built in the 1950s through the 1970s, and their aging septic systems are prone to failure. The occupants are often middle-income families or retirees.

The impact of the proposal would not be confined to homes near the bay, however. The governor would require counties to designate "areas of special concern," using criteria prescribed in the bill. Some legislators are concerned the categories are so broad that they could affect most of the state.

In Carroll County, about half of the land mass could be classified as a "special concern" area for various reasons -- including soil composition and proximity to wells and reservoirs. In some Eastern Shore counties, there is little land that would not qualify.

The bill is a hard sell for the administration because septic systems are not a big contributor to the Chesapeake Bay's nitrogen problems, compared with such sources as sewage treatment plants and agriculture. According to the administration's figures, septic systems account for 6 percent of the nitrogen loading in the bay.

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