Ehrlich proposes sewage fee to protect the bay

$30 rise in water bills would fund cleanup

January 09, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Marylanders who flush into municipal sewage systems would see their water bills increase by $30 a year under a Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan unveiled last night by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The $2.50 monthly surcharge would raise $66 million a year to upgrade Maryland's 66 largest sewage treatment plants. That would enable them to cut significantly the harmful nutrients they release into the bay.

"Talk is cheap, especially in my business," Ehrlich said last night as he presented the plan to the Chesapeake Bay Commission in Annapolis. "Today represents another chapter in action from our administration."

FOR THE RECORD - In Friday's editions of The Sun, the state government office headed by Robert M. Summers was misidentified. Summers is the director of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Water Management Administration.

In addition to the new sewage fee, the governor proposed a nonprofit "Chesapeake Bay Recovery Fund" that would seek private contributions to pay for oyster restoration, underwater grass planting and similar activities.

All Maryland homeowners who use municipal sewage systems would pay the new fee, as would condominium owners and apartment dwellers who currently receive separate municipal sewage.

Owners of multifamily residential buildings without individual sewage bills would be charged a fee for each unit, leaving it to them to pass the charges along to their tenants. Businesses would be charged $2.50 a month for each 250 gallons of daily sewage they produce.

About 84 percent of Marylanders would be covered by the new fee, according to Robert M. Summers, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Waste Management Administration.

The Republican governor's plan, which would require legislation by the Democratic General Assembly, is generating a debate over political syntax.

Although cynics have dubbed the measure a "flush tax," Ehrlich took pains last night to say it was nothing of the kind.

"I came into office saying I would not raise the sales tax or the income tax," Ehrlich said. "This is more along the lines of a user fee, and it's a user fee for the purpose of restoring the Chesapeake Bay."

But Del. James W. Hubbard - a Prince George's County Democrat and member of the bay commission - said there's little difference between higher fees and higher taxes.

"When Democrats do it, it's a tax. When Republicans do it, then it's called a user fee," Hubbard said. "I support this tax."

Homeowners who use septic tanks would not be affected by the fee. But Ehrlich conceded last night that he is willing to consider alternatives to ensure they pay a share, too - perhaps a similar fee dedicated to other bay restoration efforts.

The proposal would allow the state to sell $750 million to $1 billion in bonds to cover upgrades to the all treatment plants handling at least 500,000 gallons of sewage a day.

Although Maryland has 150 plants overall, upgrades to the 66 largest would cover 95 percent of the discharge into the bay, Summers said.

Installing the latest pollution-reduction technology in those facilities would cut the amount of nitrogen released into the bay by 7.5 million pounds a year, officials said. Ehrlich said the upgrades to all 66 plants could be completed by 2011.

Scientists blame nutrients in the bay for causing algae blooms that deplete the bay's oxygen supply and create areas of water unhealthy for marine life.

Discharges from wastewater-treatment plants account for about 20 percent of that pollution. Agriculture accounts for 40 percent, and the rest comes from sources that include air pollution from power plants and auto emissions.

"It's only part of the solution," Ehrlich said of his plan. "Nevertheless, it is an important part of the solution."

The jurisdictions of the bay watershed - Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. - have agreed to cut the flow of nutrients significantly by the end of this decade.

"I think the focus on the sewage treatment upgrades is an excellent beginning," said Ann P. Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a group representing lawmakers from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed support for the goals of Ehrlich's plan. Some resistance may come from lawmakers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, who say they already pay higher sewage fees to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

"Obviously, there's got to be some kind of funding source," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "I think this is a concept we all should rally behind."

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and the Senate minority leader, said he thinks most GOP lawmakers will back the higher fee.

"It's time we focus on the sewage treatment plants, because so much of the focus so far has been on agriculture," he said

The governor said he hopes that by demonstrating a serious commitment to raise money for bay restoration, Maryland will be able to secure additional federal support.

Last month, Ehrlich and other area leaders announced a campaign to make bay restoration a national priority.

William C. Baker, president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the governor's efforts yesterday, but said he wants the legislation to put the strictest possible limits on nitrogen discharges.

"Clearly, the concept of raising funds to get on with the sewage upgrades is something we're very supportive of," Baker said. "What we need to see is the language of the bill to get the most nitrogen reduction that the technology allows."

In starting a campaign for private donations for bay restoration, C. Ronald Franks, Maryland's Secretary of Natural Resources, insisted that tax-deductible contributions would come with "no strings attached."

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