ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Democratic senators Wednesday defeated a move to carve out septic systems from a Chesapeake Bay clean-up fee imposed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s premier environmental bill.
The 33-14 outcome may presage a vote on the measure today, though Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, said he could not predict GOP positions.
“(Republicans) want to support the governor’s bill,” said Stoltzfus, “but they’ve said from the beginning that they’ve felt very strongly about not including septics.”
Ehrlich said Wednesday that differences in the legislation could be worked out in a conference committee between House and Senate negotiators.
Ehrlich’s legislation would charge households $30 annually for upgrades to the state’s 66 largest wastewater treatment plants to reduce Chesapeake Bay nitrogen loading, which causes algal blooms that choke fish and native plants.
But the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee changed the bill to include a flat $2.50 monthly fee on people using sewer systems, septic and holding tanks.
The bill also gave the administration until Jan. 15 to devise a plan for fee collection.
“Every member of this body and every resident of Maryland is contributing to the death of the bay,” said committee Chairwoman Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County. “This is a fairness bill.”
Opponents said the logistics of charging the more than 400,000 households on septic system were not clear, however, and the bill should instead appoint a work group to smooth out the kinks.
“We’re giving people three months to figure out who, what, when, where and why,” said Sen. David Brinkley, R-Carroll, who offered the amendment. “That’s ridiculous.”
Ehrlich initially opposed septic system fees, though he rallied GOP delegates to support a House version of the bill that would charge 8 cents per gallon on “honey dippers” who pump out septic tanks.
“This is a major environmental initiative,” Ehrlich said later. “We have spent a lot of political capital trying to get this passed.”
But the governor does not support equal charges to septic and sewer users since septic systems contribute 4 percent of the bay nitrogen loading, while wastewater facilities contribute nearly 30 percent.
“Senator Hollinger continues, in a very respectful way, to believe that septics should be 50 percent of the solution, although it’s not 50 percent of the problem,” Ehrlich said. “We continue to believe septic is a (minor part of) the problem and should represent a (minor) part of the solution.”
But an individual on a septic tank contributes four times the pollution of a person on sewer, said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery.
“(The) $2.50 on septic tanks is not fair,” he said. “They should be paying more.”
Marylanders are willing to pay $2.50 per month to reduce pollution from sewage plants, according to a poll by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, showed 72 percent of sewer customers and 68 percent of septic users felt the fee was reasonable.
Environmentalists said the need for this bill has grown as studies show further deterioration of the bay and its tributaries.
“We have not seen dissolved oxygen levels this low, this early in many years if ever,” said foundation President Will Baker. “This is a precursor of a very severe ‘dead zone’ problem this summer.”
Last summer the bay experienced an unprecedented deoxygenated zone stretching more than 150 miles across 40 percent of the waterway.
Without sufficient oxygen, fisheries and underwater grasses die and toxic algae blooms, affecting marine industries and human health.
“The science is clear, we must reduce pollution,” Baker said. “Passage of this legislation is an essential first step in protecting and restoring the health of the Chesapeake.”