ANNAPOLIS – Members of a House panel Wednesday dissected the costs and fairness of Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s bill to require residents in areas near water tables or the Chesapeake Bay to install pollution controls in their septic systems.
“If we don’t address septic systems it could be the next big problem of the state,” said Jane Nishida of the Maryland Department of the Environment, in the jammed hearing room of the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Glendening’s bill would designate areas of the state where all new septic systems would have to be equipped with nitrogen-fixing devices, and that existing septic tanks be upgraded with the new equipment when they need repairs.
State sponsored studies have shown Maryland’s 400,000 septic tanks contribute 6 percent of the nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay and 19 percent in local watersheds. Municipal and industrial waste plants and agricultural runoff, sources that the state already regulates, contribute the rest.
Nitrogen is a nutrient that can render groundwater undrinkable and has been implicated in an outbreak of a fish-killing microbe in 1997.
The cost of such equipment drew protests from governments and the real estate and homebuilding industries. They argued the septic system nitrogen pollution isn’t great enough to warrant the expense.
A new nitrogen-removal system could cost residents between $3,000 and $7,000, said Joe Bryce, with the governor’s office. Yearly maintenance costs run about $150.
“To see a number of businesses shuttered and closed would be horrible. This is more significant than you know,” said Bill Armstrong, of the Maryland Association of Realtors.
Mitch McCalmon, with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said his membership’s concern is that the state won’t be getting much bang for the bucks businesses might have to spend.
“Our concern is that the state can impact small business owners to the tune of $50,000, but would not have a high level of scrutiny of what you’re going to get with that type of investment,” he said. Legislators are considering amending the bill to impact only septic tanks incapable of handling sewage, rather than requiring an upgrade for any tank needing repair.
Legislators worried the governor’s task force didn’t conduct adequate research to prove the new septic systems will improve the state’s nitrogen problems.
“The issue is what are we doing this for,” said Delegate Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll, who was concerned that the equipment, which removes 60 percent of raw sewage’s nitrogen, might not make a difference.
Other legislators argued the bill isn’t fair because the cost of the nitrogen-fixing systems hurt retired and lower income residents harder than others.
“Communities are aging and staying put and this (bill) is going to inflict a tremendous cost on them,” said Delegate George W. Owings III, D-Calvert, who just had to replace his own septic tank. “It will be a terrible burden for someone who has to pay out-of-pocket for a new septic upgrade.”
The bill provides a 70 percent tax credit capped at $4,900 for the nitrogen-fixing device and installation costs. Proposed amendments would provide low-interest-rate loans or grants to low-income residents.
Members of the governor’s task force reminded the panel to look at the larger picture.
“We are throwing around numbers here, but we have to look at (the nitrogen problem) from a cumulative point,” said Tom Miller, water quality specialist with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.
“Everyone wants the bay and their water clean until it comes to their own wallet and their own backyard,” he said. Environmental organizations agreed: “We need to solve this problem. It’s common sense,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins with the 1,000 Friends of Maryland. “Nitrogen in your drinking water is bad news.” – 30 – CNS-2-16-00