Bay Cleanup Plan Worries Cecil County; Towns-County Fight Looms

February 16, 2011

Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan submitted to federal authorities last December will have “a significant impact on everyone” and the burden of enforcement could be dumped on the counties, Cecil County Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) told fellow commissioners. Moreover, the program could pit the county against its incorporated towns as they vie for allowable wastewater discharge flows.

At the Cecil County Commissioners workshop session Tuesday, Hodge voiced “serious, serious concerns” after attending a meeting of Eastern Shore local leaders and environmental officials to discuss the program.

Maryland and other states near the Bay are under orders from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reduce nutrient pollution running off into the Bay under a program that sets “maximum daily loads” for pollutants. Maryland submitted its plan in December 2010, and EPA commended the state for its multi-pronged efforts to combat pollution from agriculture, septic and sewage treatment systems, and urban run-off.

Governor Martin O’Malley stunned state and local lawmakers a week ago when, in his State of the State message, he advocated legislation—subsequently introduced in the General Assembly—to sharply curtail septic systems in rural areas such as Cecil County. The state’s plan submitted to the EPA in December also included a hidden mandate that could cost the state, and property owners, over $400 million to force upgrades of existing, functioning septic systems in rural areas, as the Cecil Times reported exclusively here:

Scott Flanigan, Cecil County’s Director of Public Works, told the county commissioners there are still many unanswered questions, such as how allocations for agricultural lands run-off will be made—through the county government or through soil conservation districts. It is also unclear if the Perry Point VA hospital, as a federal installation which adjoins the Susquehanna River—will get its own pollution limits allocation.

Such offsets could diminish the allocations available for the rest of the county. And it is unclear how the county’s eight incorporated towns, which operate their own wastewater treatment systems, will be handled.

Flanigan suggested that the state should establish the mandates for how much “maximum daily loads” the towns will be allocated rather than try to force the towns and county to negotiate their own deal, “given the history of the relationship” between the towns and the county government.”

“It’ll be a bloodbath” if the county and the towns have to work out an allocation plan on their own, observed Vernon Thompson, the county’s Director of Economic Development.

“The state admits they’re making it up as they go along,” Flanigan said of the rule-making process for the cleanup program. “It’s a brave new world.”
Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) expressed concern that the state will not have its calculations for “maximum daily loads” to be apportioned to each county until June, but the counties are expected to come up with their plans on how to abide by the limits just a few months later, by December.

“These are unrealistic expectations,” Moore said. “We’re not even given the courtesy of good data.”

Hodge cited a lawsuit against the limits filed by the American Farm Bureau, suggesting that the legal action might buy the county more time.

Moore suggested that the county work with other counties and organizations to seek an extension of the deadline for the counties to comply with the mandates. The commissioners agreed they would work with the Maryland Association of Counties on the issue.

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