Moving to correct a major water pollution problem in some portions of the Chesapeake Bay, the Maryland Senate agreed Monday to require nitrogen-removing technology on all new or replacement household septic systems near the shoreline.
Under the bill, which was narrowly approved, the state would cover the extra cost of replacing a failing septic system with an enhanced one capable of removing nitrogen from household wastewater. But homebuyers would have to bear the added cost of about $5,600 for an enhanced system when building a house along the shore.
The measure now goes to the House of Delegates, where its future is uncertain.
Sen. Michael G. Lenett, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said that the septic system measure was needed to restore the bay. "We know what we need to do," he said. "Now we are just talking about costs."
He said that if new development continues along the bay's shores without added pollution removal, at the same time the state struggles to clean up existing pollution, the bay will never come back.
Though septic systems account for only 5 percent of all the nitrogen fouling the bay, they are a significant source of pollution in rural and some suburban waterfront areas where homes have been built beyond sewage treatment networks. Officials estimate that the 40,000 septic systems in Anne Arundel County, for instance, generate more of the nitrogen getting into local waterways than is discharged by the county's sewage treatment plants.
Bay advocates hailed the Senate vote, which comes as state and federal officials look for new ways to jump-start the stymied restoration of the Chesapeake.
Only three counties now require nitrogen-removing septic systems on new waterfront homes - Anne Arundel, Queen Anne's and Worcester. The bill passed by the Senate would extend the requirement statewide - a major shift in policy. A decade ago, a bill that would have required de-nitrifying systems on all new homes failed to get out of committee in the face of opposition by Realtors and builders.
The same groups oppose this bill, arguing that having to put in more expensive septic systems will drive away some new-home buyers at a time when the building industry is in the doldrums. Advocates, however, argued that the septic system represents a fraction of the overall cost of a new waterfront home.
For the past few years, the state Department of the Environment has been providing grants under a voluntary program to encourage homeowners to upgrade their septic systems with nitrogen-removing technology. Funds for the program come from a $30 annual fee levied on all 420,000 homes that are on septic systems. The state has underwritten 638 septic upgrades, 346 of them along the waterfront.
But officials estimate that there are about 51,000 homes on septic systems in the "critical area," the environmentally sensitive strip of land within 1,000 feet of the bay and its tributaries. About 240 of those septic systems are repaired or replaced annually, according to MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus, but the agency estimates that almost three times that number actually fail in any given year and should be replaced.