Bay Journal

Hogan announces plan to relax Maryland septic requirements

  • By Rona Kobell on August 21, 2016
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed rolling back rules requiring state-of-the-art septic systems on new homes. (Dave Harp)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced this weekend that he plans to relax a requirement that septic systems for all new homes include state-of-the-art pollution-reducing denitrification technologies.

The state would only require the use of systems with the best available technology in homes along the tidal waterfront known as the Critical Area to reduce nitrogen from wastes before it can seep into groundwater, drinking water and the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. A house on a septic system can release as much as 10 times more nitrogen into waterways than one on sewage treatment.

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley had urged the state to pass a ban on new developments on septic systems. Rural legislators revolted, and the state ended up with a compromise plan in 2012. It required all new homes not hooked to sewer systems to put in denitrifying septic systems.

Hogan’s announcement Saturday at a Maryland Association of Counties meeting dispensed with the requirement that all new houses needed the high-tech systems, saying the requirements created a “cost-prohibitive burden” on homeowners and businesses.

“Maryland Department of the Environment has revisited these regulations and eliminated the requirements outside the Critical Area, ensuring that environmental safeguards remain in place while reducing an unnecessary regulatory burden,” read a statement about the speech.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is to propose the regulatory change Monday.

New septic systems in Maryland’s Critical Area, where they often have the most immediate impact on Bay water quality, will still need the denitrifying septic systems. And Maryland Environmental Secretary Ben Grumbles told the Baltimore Sun that the department would step up efforts to require the replacement of failing septic systems statewide.

The department has offered grant funds for residents to retrofit their systems with new technology, but most have chosen not to. The department doesn’t pay the whole cost for replacements, which can be as much as $10,000, and many homeowners are reluctant to tear up their yards.

Grumbles told the Sun that the Hogan rule was “a smarter, more effective way to make environmental progress.”

The man who had the job before him disagrees.

Former Environment Secretary Robert Summers, who worked at the MDE for 30 years, said the Critical Area distinction won’t make that much of a difference for the pollution. Ultimately, nitrate from septic systems everywhere gets into the groundwater, streams and eventually the Bay, Summers said.

“I fail to see how it is an unfair regulatory burden on septic owners that they treat their waste water when those of us on sewage systems are paying more and more for upgrades to collection systems and treatment plants,” Summers said.  “The whole population needs to do its share to control pollution. Why should rural residents get a free pass?”

The septics issue has long been problematic because it is both costly, and the systems generally are not as large of a source of Bay pollution as runoff from farms, stormwater and discharges from sewage treatment. But septic pollution can be a significant part of the pollution in some local areas and contribute to increased levels of bacteria that can shut down swimming and make fishing risky.

In a septic system, a tank holds solid waste. The liquid waste eventually settles out in a drain field, where it will eventually seep untreated into groundwater or reach nearby waterways.

Some communities, such as Goldsboro on the Eastern Shore and part of Kent Island, are on failing septic systems that have polluted their local waterways. The state has made an effort to hook those communities up to public sewer system but some public health advocates have advised curtailing any more building on septic systems. In many cases, even a denitrifying septic retrofit won’t solve the problem if the lot is not big enough.

Advocates of the O’Malley regulation say that curbing pollution from septics was not just about nitrogen from the systems. It was also about nitrogen from tailpipes. Homes with septic systems tend to require larger lots and tend to be farther into the countryside, so commuters must drive longer distances, thereby generating more nitrogen oxides, which also contribute to Bay pollution.

Making new homes pay for septic systems and restricting where they could be built would redirect development into urban cores and reduce land fragmentation, said former state planning secretary Richard Hall, who worked on O’Malley’s septic rules as well as several of their predecessors.

Changing the regulations is “just 360 bad,” Hall said. “You’re polluting and you’re not paying to remove that nutrient pollution, unlike the people on sewer, who are paying.”

About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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