ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s controversial bill requiring rural homeowners and businesses to install septic tank pollution controls died in committee, but has a chance to reappear next session after summer review.
Glendening’s administration couldn’t convince key lawmakers that the bill was based on sound science or that its environmental benefits justified the $3,000-$7,000 price tag for homeowners on nitrogen-removal equipment. Businesses could pay up to $100,000 for the devices that remove 60 percent of sewage’s nitrogen, state officials said.
“It was a difficult bill,” Glendening said at a press conference last week, referring to the lone failure of his 2000 legislative package.
“It would have taken a lot of personal resources at this time. I devoted all of my personal time and office to the enactment of the gun legislation.”
Glendening’s top priority in the General Assembly session that ended Monday was a bill requiring internal locking devices on handguns sold in Maryland by 2003.
While the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee passed the bill 7-5, the House Environmental Matters and the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee never gave it a vote.
“No matter which way you go,” the bill isn’t right, said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, a vocal opponent who helped stall the bill in the Senate budget committee.
“The costs are just way out of line for the benefits,” he said. “I hope (the bill) doesn’t come back. I don’t think it merits summer study.”
Glendening’s proposal would designate areas where new septic systems would have to be equipped with nitrogen-fixing devices. Existing tanks there would need upgrades when they fail.
State studies have shown Maryland’s 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 the 1997 outbreak of a fish-killing microbe.
Amendments to the bill would provide a 70 percent tax credit capped at $4,900 to cover costs. Residents earning $34,000 or less would be eligible for grants to offset the remaining cost.
Delegate George W. Owings III, D-Calvert, said the problem is legitimate, “but we don’t necessary want to use a sledgehammer” right now, he said. The bill needs review, he said.
Several lawmakers complained the state couldn’t answer key questions.
Delegate Kenneth D. Schisler, R-Talbot, of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said he wanted to know the new equipment’s exact environmental benefits. He also questioned how local governments would enforce the policy and how residents would maintain the new systems.
He wasn’t satisfied with the answers, he said.
“Before we go and mandate an extremely expensive bill, we need answers,” he said.
“The bill was doomed from the start,” Stoltzfus said. “The facts just did not justify it.”
State environmental officials did not return calls for comment.
Glendening couldn’t even convince legislative leaders to stand behind the bill.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, said the proposal would hit his district – parts of Prince George’s and Calvert County – the hardest.
“The bill, in my opinion, unduly impacts the area I represent,” he said. And, he said, it is too vague to become law. “It was a complicated bill and there was no time to understand it,” Miller said. “There has got to be a better way to address failing septic systems.” House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, also opposes the bill. The Maryland Association of Realtors’ grassroots lobbying campaign against the bill and opposition from the Maryland State Association of Builders and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce helped seal the measure’s fate. The extra cost could “chill” the real estate market, Realtors argued in newspaper advertisements and press releases. Most people wait until they are ready to move to inspect their tanks, said spokesman William Castelli. A surprise $7,000 bill could limit their next purchase. “The science is simply not there,” said Kathleen L. McHugh of the builder’s group, which represents 2,400 developers. “It would unnecessarily raise the cost of a home,” she said. Environmental groups rallied behind the bill, but said efforts to educate state residents about it or their septic systems were poor. “There simply wasn’t enough education about the bad things bad septic systems do,” said Mary Marsh, spokeswoman for Maryland’s Sierra Club. “People aren’t used to spending a dime on their septic system. They are used to flush and forget,” said Dru Schmidt Perkins of 1000 Friends of Maryland. “I consider this year to be an education year” for the bill, Marsh said. Glendening promised the bill would return next year: “It is an important issue,” he said, “and it is not going to go away.”