Council weighs septic upgrades

Bill would require nitrogen-reducing systems when some residents make repairs

December 04, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County Council members are weighing whether to require homeowners to install a new, more expensive nitrogen-reducing septic system when making upgrades or repairs to their septic tanks.

On Monday, council members approved, by a 5-2 vote, an amendment to the bill that would require the new septic tanks only in bogs and critical areas, land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters. The bill had extended the requirement outside those areas, but that language was removed because council members were concerned about the amount of state money available to reimburse homeowners, said Democratic Councilman Jamie Benoit of Crownsville. Because of the amendment, the vote on the full bill was postponed until the next council meeting on Dec. 15.

Republican council members Edward R. Reilly of Crofton and C. Edward Middlebrooks of Severn voted against the amendment because they say they believe state funding could run out and impose a burden on residents. Reilly said he was not convinced that there would be enough money to go around to reimburse residents for the improvements, which can cost $10,000 or more, depending on the size of the system. Senior citizens and others on fixed incomes could get hurt by this bill, he said. Reilly said the bill also discourages people from connecting to public sewers.

"I'm voting against the amendment not because I'm against clean water, but because it might have unintended consequences," Reilly said.

Officials from County Executive John R. Leopold's office expressed the same sentiments at the past two council meetings. "The goal is a very positive goal," said Alan Friedman, a spokesman for Leopold. "The potential of an unfunded mandate is a great concern, and we're trying to work through those issues."

Benoit said that the Bay Restoration Fund has plenty of money available because so few Marylanders have tapped into it. In fact, only 380 state residents have used money in the $16 million fund. The Maryland Department of the Environment allocated $2.6 million of that fund for Anne Arundel County to use from December 2006 until June 2009. So far, half of the money has been used to install 65 units, said Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for MDE. Another eight applications for upgrades have been approved, said Elin Jones, the public information officer for the county's Department of Health. The money, which comes from a $30 annual tax on Marylanders with septic systems or holding tanks, pays for new equipment, installation and five years of maintenance.

MDE has put a priority on fixing failing septic systems in critical areas and has been advertising the program on radio. In Anne Arundel, state officials estimate that 200 systems a year will need to be upgraded, and they will set aside enough money for at least that number "for the foreseeable future," Stoltzfus said.

The septic issue is important because even septic tanks that are working properly leak nitrogen into ground water, according to state environmental officials. The water eventually leaches into streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. Excess nitrogen leads to algae blooms that block sunlight and absorb oxygen needed for bay grasses and fish to survive. State environmental officials, as well as private groups, such as the Sierra Club, are pushing for residents to upgrade their septic systems. The equipment is supposed to cut nitrogen seepage in half, Stoltzfus said.

Some residents, however, don't believe the nitrogen problem is with the septic systems. They point to sewage spills at pumping stations as a bigger threat than septic tanks.

Steve Lowe, 54, of Pasadena, still lives in his childhood home, which has a septic system. His family has never had a problem with the septic system and nearby Bodkin Creek is not polluted, he said.

Pumping station spills, however, are more to blame for high nitrogen levels, he said. In November 2007, for example, 4,000 gallons of sewage spilled into Weems Creek from the Jennifer Road pumping station in Annapolis.

"You're not getting anywhere near that [amount of nitrogen] from these septic systems," Lowe said. "There are so many ways nitrogen gets into the water."

Leonard Paskoski, 70, also of Pasadena, agreed with Reilly and others that a county mandate to install septic systems would place a financial hardship on people with fixed incomes. The state might run out of money to pay for upgrades, he said. Paskoski also doubts that the systems work as well as they've been promoted.

"You're really putting a burden on people with a system that doesn't do any more than the system we already have," Paskoski said.

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