Pollution initiative in jeopardy

Proposal to improve septic systems is key Glendening plan

Opponents assail cost

Not enough time to tackle issue before sine die, Taylor says

March 29, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

With the General Assembly adjourning in just 13 days, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's top environmental initiative -- to require more efficient septic systems in parts of the state -- is in danger of being defeated or significantly weakened.

Key legislators said yesterday they had concerns about the bill's requirement that new septic systems be equipped with nitrogen-reduction technology -- at an extra cost of $3,000 to $7,000.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and the head of the House committee considering the governor's proposal said the Assembly does not have enough time to tackle the issue.

"I honestly think that's headed for summer study," Taylor said yesterday. "It's just too much to deal with."

Del. Ron Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, agreed, saying the matter is too complicated to be ironed out before the 90-day legislative session ends April 10.

"The committee has a lot of serious concerns," said Guns, an Eastern Shore Democrat who has clashed often with Glendening on environmental issues. "I don't think the will is there to pass it."

Glendening's proposal, which would take effect in 2002, would require property owners installing a septic system at a new home or replacing a failing one to purchase models featuring the nitrogen-reduction technology. The measure would apply only to properties in areas of "special" environmental concern, such as coastal bay watersheds.

Administration officials estimate that about 30,000 of the state's 400,000 septic systems are failing and in need of replacement. The bill provides for state grants and loans to help low- and moderate-income property owners meet the extra cost.

The legislature's fiscal analysts have estimated that the financial assistance would cost the state nearly $15 million a year.

Property owners who earn too much to qualify would have to pay the full cost.

Nitrogen is a key cause of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, leading to excessive algal growth and other problems. Septic systems are responsible for about 6 percent of the nitrogen flowing into the bay, administration officials estimate.

Vocal opponents

A vocal group of opponents has lined up to kill the bill. Leading the charge have been homebuilder and Realtor groups, who are concerned about driving up the cost of homes.

The Maryland Realtors Association has waged a grass-roots effort against the bill, using ads in local newspapers to alert homeowners to the bill's provisions and the potential cost to property owners.

Taylor echoed their concerns, saying the legislation would drive people out of his native Western Maryland into West Virginia, where homebuilding is less expensive. "We're trying to develop the mountain counties, not chase people away," said Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat.

Less of a priority

While Glendening has actively lobbied for passage of his gun-safety bill, he has made the septics legislation less of a priority in recent weeks. He professed yesterday not to know where the legislation stood.

"I've been so focused on the gun bill," Glendening said. "The septics bill is obviously important, but the gun bill is so important."

The septics bill has yet to move to the floor of the Senate or the House of Delegates.

A key environmental lobbyist said enough time remains in the session to fashion a solid bill to address the problem of failing septic systems.

`Antiquated technology'

"It's one of the biggest pollutants in our bays, and we have to begin addressing it," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "We have antiquated technology that hasn't been changed in 50 years that does not protect our drinking water or our bays from nitrogen pollution."

In a compromise measure, key senators have agreed to amend the measure to require the nitrogen-reduction technology only when new homes are built -- not when failing systems are replaced.

Joseph Bryce, the governor's chief lobbyist, said Taylor's call for a summer study of the issue "hurts" the bill's chances, but he said the administration would continue to work with legislators.

Looking for common ground

"We've tried to respond to any concern that's raised," Bryce said. "We're going to keep working and see if we can find some common ground."

Bryce pointed out that the governor's legislation stemmed from the work of a task force last year that included legislators.

Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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