A sewage treatment bill that many environmental advocates are calling the most important piece of legislation in decades is expected to become law next week, inching Maryland closer to its goal of a cleaner Chesapeake Bay.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is scheduled to sign the "flush tax" into law Wednesday in a ceremony at Annapolis City Dock. The event is likely to bring out activists who have been cheering on the Republican anti-tax governor for pushing legislation that should cut in half the nitrogen pollution seeping into the bay. The tax, which will cost Maryland homeowners $30 a year, is expected to raise $65 million for improvements to sewage treatment plants statewide.
"This was a significant piece of legislation, no doubt about it," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It started out as a great bill. It ended up being an incredible bill."
The fees, which some call a tax and which will show up in January in $2.50-a-month increments on public water bills, will help repay nearly $1 billion in bonds that will finance upgrades to 66 major sewage treatment plants in the state. The new technology is expected to reduce the amount of nitrogen from the current standard of 8 milligrams per liter to 3 milligrams per liter.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell called the bill "the most historic initiative in 30 years" and said the governor supported the legislation to "preserve the bay's central role in Maryland's way of life." Those efforts prompted the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to post a "thank you" message to the governor on the entrance to its Web site.
But other environmental advocates contend that, though the tax is a great first step, it doesn't go far enough quickly enough.
For one, the measure won't diminish pollution from sewage flowing into the bay from the other jurisdictions in the watershed -- Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation plans lobbying efforts in those states throughout the year -- particularly in Virginia, where legislators discussed sewage upgrades in the last legislative session.
"It's 20 years too late and five states short of what's necessary," said Howard R. Ernst, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of Chesapeake Bay Blues, who added that calling the tax the most important bay bill in years is not a compliment.
The measure also won't help the smaller, overburdened treatment plants, such as the one in Centreville, where the Maryland Department of the Environment imposed a moratorium on development this month after an apparent sewage spill dumped millions of gallons of untreated sewage into a Chester River tributary.
Ernst and others have noted that the sewage legislation only begins to tackle the bay's greatest pollutant, nitrogen from farming operations across the watershed. Some of the money collected from the septic users will pay for farmers to plant cover crops, such as winter wheat, that will reduce the amount of nitrogen released into the air from manure. But critics say it won't be nearly enough for an ailing bay that is seeing record declines in underwater grasses and a spreading dead zone.
"We're attacking a discrete but small portion of the problem here. It's just a small piece," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who serves on the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "We really need to make progress on air and agricultural deposition."
The bill goes into effect July 1, but then the counties and municipalities have six months to integrate their billing systems and begin collecting the fees. The Department of the Environment will use those funds to upgrade about 15 plants a year, refitting each with new tanks, basins, pumps and chemicals to control nutrient pollution.
Jag Khuman, director of the state's Water Quality Financing Administration, doesn't expect a problem because the local jurisdictions don't have to raise the funds.
"If you're going to get a 100 percent grant, you may as well get ready, right? There's no reason to delay the process," he said.
Although assessing public-sewer customers will be easy, Khuman said he's not sure how the governments will charge septic customers, who account for about a fourth of the state's users. The septic issue had threatened to derail the bill, with the governor arguing that the law shouldn't apply to septic systems and Senate Democrats insisting that it must. Now that septic systems are included, a state advisory committee will help local governments figure out how to charge users.
"No details have been worked out yet," Khuman said. "The counties have kind of a whole year to figure it out."
In Anne Arundel County, which has seven sewage treatment plants, officials from several agencies will meet next month to discuss the best methods of charging the county's thousands of septic users, some of whom are on public water and some of whom use wells. The county has no billing system for septic users.
"We're already thinking in terms of making this work," said county land-use spokeswoman Pam Jordan. "We're putting it in motion now and working toward the deadline."
Paula C. Hollinger, the Baltimore County Democrat who ischairwoman of the Senate's environment committee and fought for septic systems to be part of the bill, said the counties have plenty of time to figure out septic billing. She said counties can add charges to property tax bills, or users could pay it with their income tax. Either way, she said, the only way the bill would be fair would be to make every user pay.
"I wasn't going to put a bill out that didn't include everybody," Hollinger said. "Everybody flushes."