ANNAPOLIS – Supporters sung the praises of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s sewer surcharge bill Wednesday, but larded it with amendments that could bog down its likely unfettered flow through the General Assembly.
Even standing room was at a premium at the House Environmental Matters Committee as throngs of people from environmental organizations, local governments and industry entities poured in to extol the bill in the almost three-hour hearing.
“I won’t be surprised if there is not an overwhelming vote for this bill when it goes to the floor,” said committee member George Owings III, D-Calvert. “I think you will see equal bipartisan support.”
The bill would impose a $2.50 monthly surcharge on household sewer bills and devote the fund to cleaning up the polluted Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Kendl Philbrick said the bill would be a huge step toward cleaning up the bay and would assist Maryland in meeting a 2010 deadline for nutrient reduction in the bay.
“It is critical to the health of the Chesapeake,” he said, calling the measure the “most cost effective” way of cleaning the bay in the “shortest period.”
The fund, which would retool the state’s 66 largest sewage treatment plants, would contain about $63 million in fiscal year 2005.
There were some few criticisms at the hearing, but plenty of suggested revisions.
The Maryland Municipal League and county and local officials complained they would have to bear inordinate administrative responsibility, although they would receive a 3 percent fee to cover those costs.
And environmentalists and sewage treatment plant representatives wrangled over a proposition to impose a 3-milligrams-per-liter nitrogen release requirement on plants.
But the chief concern was the exclusion of septic tanks from the proposed surcharge, which committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, said she intends to include in the bill on the basis of fairness.
“I agree particularly with the farming community, who has felt, with some justification, singled out as polluters of the bay,” she said.
The governor is not “enthusiastic” about the inclusion of this provision, said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell, but “he understands it is something the Legislature may want to add and is willing to discuss it.”
Rural communities are expected to oppose including septic tanks.
“Yeah you’re going to get a lot of heat over it, but it’s time to pay the piper,” said Richard Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen’s Association to delegates representing rural areas.
But the “politicians may have more of a problem than the rurals,” said E. Steuart Chaney of Herrington Harbour Marinas.
The administration offered 11 amendments to address some of supporters’ concerns.
The changes strengthened language prohibiting alternate uses of the fund, gave fee-collection flexibility to local governments, provided mechanisms to collect surcharges from delinquent users and exempted facilities not contributing significant nutrients to state waterways.
Although everyone’s demands will not be met, Owings said the bill’s chance of passage continues to be good.
“You can never make everyone happy (but) if nobody is totally happy then you’ve done a good job.”