O'Malley launches study of septic growth curbs

Task force to tackle disputes over governor's failed legislation

April 18, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley created a task force Monday to study curbing pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from septic systems, saying he hoped it would help overcome concerns about the legislation he pushed unsuccessfully this year that would have banned large housing developments relying on the waste treatment systems.

"We must find a way to grow in a cleaner, greener, more sustainable way," O'Malley said before signing an executive order establishing the task force. He held the signing ceremony at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center on the Severn River, where he said household septic systems account for almost 30 percent of the nitrogen fouling the bay tributary.

About 411,000 households statewide are on septic systems, which remove bacteria from residential waste but allow nitrogen to seep into groundwater and nearby streams. Although septic systems are a relatively small source of nitrogen pollution baywide compared with sewage plants or farm runoff, their share could increase by 36 percent over the next 25 years if nothing is done, state officials project.

But O'Malley's bid to limit major housing developments on septic systems failed to get out of committee in Annapolis after rural lawmakers, farmers and developers raised an outcry, warning that it would throttle growth and cost jobs in the state's rural and suburban counties.

"By introducing the bill, we kicked over the septic 'soup,' if you will," the governor said. "It was an issue we'd been tiptoeing around for the last several years as we addressed more obvious problems."

The state has provided $32 million so far to help homeowners replace or upgrade septic systems with more advanced versions that leak less nitrogen, but the governor said it would take decades to retrofit all of them. Meanwhile, he said, steps must be taken to halt the proliferation of tens of thousands of new homes on septics, releasing still more nitrogen into the bay.

Among those at the announcement were Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat who had sponsored the septic curb legislation, and Del. Maggie McIntosh, head of the House Environmental Matters Committee, who had tabled the measure for further study.

McIntosh, a Baltimore City Democrat, said she hoped the study would take a broader look at how septic systems fit into the state's Smart Growth policies.

"We've got all this population coming in. Where do we want to grow, and where do we not want to grow?" she asked.

To overcome opposition, McIntosh suggested, septic curbs would need to be bundled with other measures, such as aid to farmers. Rural communities also may need financial help expanding their sewage treatment plants, she said, so they can handle the growth that could no longer occur on septic.

The task force is to include members of the House and Senate, state secretaries of the environment, natural resources, agriculture and planning, local government officials, environmental activists, scientists, developers and farmers. It's ordered to report its findings by Dec. 1, five weeks before the next session of the General Assembly.

The Maryland State Builders Association, meanwhile, released a report warning that Maryland's efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, including septic curbs, would cost the state's taxpayers, businesses and consumers $21 billion by 2017, trimming some 65,000 jobs from the economy.

Katie Maloney, lobbyist for the builders' group, said its study by the economic consulting firm Sage Policy Group was "a shot back across the bow" of the governor for his continuing attempts to tighten regulation of development in the interest of cleaning up the bay.

"We're not saying we're walking away from our commitment to be part of the solution" for the bay restoration, Maloney said. "But we're saying this is going to cost a ton of money, and shouldn't we balance our environmental goals with our economic development goals?"

But Kim Coble, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, accused the builders group of "myopia," saying other studies have found pollution cleanups generate jobs. Maryland's seafood, tourism and other industries are "highly dependent on a clean bay, and clean rivers and streams," she added.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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