The following was received from the office of Del. Rick Impallaria:
First, I want to thank all of you for your kind words of support during this stressful session, and for allowing me to keep you informed on matters of importance to all Maryland citizens.
This is our last day of session this year, and fortunately the lunacy will end at midnight. Unfortunately, late last week this bill passed both houses, the Senate by only one vote. I refer to Senate Bill 554, the Chesapeake Bay “Nitrogen Reduction” Act of 2009 and its cross-file, House Bill 176, the “Bay Restoration” Act of 2009.
Despite their fine-sounding names (and they are the same bill), designed to disguise their real effect, this bill will not really help to clean up the Bay. What it does do is to put the blame for excess nitrogen in Bay waters on homes with septic systems near the Bay coastline. As a homeowner with a septic system, and as a home builder with many years experience, I know that the effluent from maintained septic tanks is pretty much clean water. Those of us who live near the Bay do so because we enjoy it, and I would say we are the ones who most want to see it healthy. But in our House floor debate on the issue I heard the bill’s proponents vilify and demonize septic tank owners as if they were the very worst polluters in the world. Waterfront residents of Baltimore, Harford, Cecil, Anne Arundel, Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert Counties and the entire Eastern Shore are to blame for the Bay’s problems. This bill would add $8,000 to $20,000 (estimates vary) over and above normal cost for septic tank services. The bill’s proponents say that the State will pay that cost (or reimburse the homeowner), but the State can’t pay its bills now. How is it going to be able to afford this program? Most of the Departments of Health in the counties were against this bill.
According to my understanding, there are three main sources of nitrogen pollution. One is sewer treatment plants. Gov. Ehrlich tried to pass legislation to update our sewer plants, but the majority party turned it into the infamous “flush tax”. And they now have diverted these funds away from sewer plant updating. Another effective program for Bay clean up is the Cover Crop Program and again, this program is not going to receive proper funding. The third main source comes from upstream. The east branch of the Susquehanna River rises in Cooperstown, New York and the west branch near Erie, Pennsylvania. Everything that enters the river along its hundreds of miles eventually ends up in the Bay. The State should be lobbying Pennsylvania and New York State legislators to begin educational and environmental programs in their respective states similar to the ones Maryland already has in place. But instead, leadership blames the people who have the least impact.
This is why you need to contact the Office of Governor O’Malley and ask him to veto these bills, HB 176 and SB 554. You may do this via the Governor’s website www.gov.state.md.us, by phone 410-974-3901, by fax 410-974-3275, or by mail, Office of the Governor, State House, 100 State Circle, Annapolis, MD 21401.
Thank you for being a concerned citizen.
Delegate, District 7 (Baltimore and Harford Counties)
This law actually will reduce the nitrogen load to Chesapeake Bay. With all due respect to Delegate Rick Impallaria, his comments are based on the perception that septic systems don’t affect water quality and that this law will cost the taxpayers too much money. It will cost them some money but it’s the right thing to do. By mandating nitrogen reduction on new and replacement septic systems, this law complements the efforts already in place to deal with failing septic systems through the “flush tax”.
While septic system effluent may be clear water, it certainly still contains nitrogen. The exact amount and how much of it actually reaches the Bay or its tributaries is a subject of much dispute. There aren’t that many studies out there regarding septic effluent transport to surface waters. One recent Anne Arundel study, paid for by the county and conducted by an engineering firm with obvious interests in furthering wastewater treatment plants over septic systems, put the delivery rate at 80%. Previous studies put it closer to 50%. Nevertheless, there are over 400,000 septic systems in Maryland with many in the Critical Area. They are a source of nitrogen pollution. The Magothy River north of Annapolis is a prime example of the effect of failing septic systems on water quality.
Domestic wastewater typically contains ~40 mg/l of nitrogen in the form of ammonia nitrogen. The processes by which it is converted first to nitrate nitrogen and then to harmless nitrogen gas require aerobic and anaerobic environments. Traditional septic systems cannot provide these environments. The “flush tax” septic systems utilize a blower to provide aeration. That is the primary difference. There are separate tanks within the system to allow for these separate environments. The blower usually aerates the second tank and the third is anaerobic.
Delegate Impallaria is certainly correct in stating that the funds from the Bay Restoration Fund, used for grants for these new septic systems and for cover crops, were diverted to the general fund this year. The same is true of the $50 million Chesapeake Bay fund (not sure of the fund name) – cut to $25 million this year I believe. This should not be allowed to occur. These laws need to be amended in the next legislative session to stipulate that these are dedicated funds that cannot be “moved” to the general fund.
Delegate Impallaria mentioned cover crops as an effective program for reducing nutrient pollution. He’s right, it is an effective program – the most cost effective agricultural program for nutrient reduction. However, he didn’t mention that the agricultural community is still the largest polluter in the Bay watershed. Millions have already been spent to upgrade wastewater treatment plants with biological nutrient removal (BNR) using the same processes upon which the new septic systems are based. The “flush tax” is also being used to provide enhanced nutrient removal (ENR) – down to 3 mg/l – at these large plants. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for cattle and chickens are huge sources of nitrogen pollution that go primarily unregulated in the state of Maryland and elsewhere. They must be addressed, using discharge permits and strict enforcement.
Delegate Impallaria is correct in stating that Pennsylvania needs to implement nutrient reductions in the Susquehanna watershed. They have dragged their feet for many years but it seems that they are now beginning to act, at least with wastewater treatment plant upgrades. The State of Maryland and its legislators should apply pressure to the other states in the Bay watershed. But first and foremost, they should act to strengthen the laws and programs in Maryland aimed at improving Chesapeake Bay.