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O’Malley to Shore: ‘Flush You’ or the $4 per Flush Mandate

February 6, 2011
By Nancy Schwerzler

A Cecil Times Special Report

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s otherwise predictable State of the State speech Thursday had a surprise for many rural residents: a proposed ban on septic systems for new “major” housing developments. But the real shocker wasn’t in that speech: buried in the state’s Bay cleanup plan issued in December is a demand for owners of existing homes in the Bay’s “critical area” to install new, costly high-tech septic systems.

Property owners in the “critical areas” are already under a 2009 state mandate requiring upgrades to the new nitrogen-removal systems if they build a new home or their existing septic system fails. But the state’s new Bay cleanup plan proposes extending the mandate to existing homes even if their current septic is fully functional.

The septic proposals call to mind the exhortation of former Governor William Donald Schaefer, who once referred to the Eastern Shore as a “s***house” because voters did not support his re-election. In O’Malley’s more polite verbiage, the Eastern Shore seems to be an “outhouse” that must be replaced while urban areas can flush with impunity.

In his speech to the General Assembly, Gov. O’Malley declared that “there is one area of reducing pollution where so far we have totally failed, and in fact it has gotten much worse,… and that is pollution from the proliferation of new septic systems – systems which by their very design are intend to leak sewage into our Bay and water tables. You and I can turn around this damaging trend by banning the further installation of septic systems in major Maryland housing developments.” (Transcript of the Governor’s speech is here: http://www.governor.maryland.gov/speeches/2011SOTS.pdf )

No formal proposal or legislation was offered, but “major” could mean as few as five or six new homes, according to published reports. The speech did not specify exceptions for the nitrogen-removal septic systems, indicating that an on-site sewage treatment system would be required or hook-up to a municipal wastewater treatment facility.

In rural areas such as southern Cecil County and much of the Eastern Shore, town treatment systems are many miles away and hook-ups would be impossible. Cecil County in particular has long had infrastructure shortcomings even in the designated “growth corridor” between I-95 and Route 40. Furthermore, for some farmers hoping to exercise their traditional right to create homesites for their children on land in their family for generations, an on-site treatment system requirement would be financially prohibitive.

In 2010, there were 128 septic system permits for new homes issued in Cecil County, including 105 in the rural conservation and protection areas of southern and northern Cecil County, according to Eric Sennstrom, the county’s planning director.

The dismal state of the economy and housing market no doubt contributed to the low number of permits for new homes using septic systems, but economic recovery and the influx of new residents due to the BRAC expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground could increase demand for homes in areas not now served by sewage treatment plants.
“What gets lost in all of this is that 23 percent of the Bay pollution comes from Maryland but 77 percent is from Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and D.C.,” Sennstrom said.

Maryland and the other jurisdictions were required by the new federal Chesapeake Bay cleanup initiative to submit plans for reducing pollution under the “Total Daily Maximum Load” program. Maryland’s plan was submitted in December and federal officials commended it as an aggressive program to curb pollution. (Maryland’s 234-page plan is here:
http://www.mde.state.md.us/programs/Water/TMDL/Documents/www.mde.state.md.us/assets/document/MD_Phase_I_Plan_12_03_2010_Submitted_Final.pdf

Buried in the plan is an initiative to “phase in requirement to retrofit all septic systems in the Critical Area using best available technology (the land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters) beginning in 2012.” The proposal calls for mandatory upgrades of 27,552 existing home’s septic systems, at a cost of $358.2 million, from 2012 through 2017.

The state currently subsidizes septic upgrades, especially for homes in the “critical area,” and claims the nitrogen-reducing systems cost about $13,000 to install. But state law currently only requires state aid for the program through calendar 2012, according to the state’s Bay plan.

The high-tech septic systems only reduce nitrogen emissions by 50 percent. Property owners have to remove their old systems, install electrical lines and connections to the new septic and obtain maintenance services that cost a lot more than the usual $250 to $300 for pump-out of a traditional septic system.

Statewide, just 2,100 septic systems in the ‘critical areas’ are calculated to be retro-fitted with the new technology in 2010 and 2011, according to the plan, and another 3,600 would be upgraded from 2012-2017 under the existing mandate for new homes or failed septic systems on occupied homes.—at a cost of $80.5 million.

But the buried mandate in the new cleanup plan would vastly expand the scope—and cost—of the nitrogen-reducing septic systems for existing homes.

The costs, in a time of state budget crisis, could become a comedy of errors. Let’s calculate the cost per flush.

Consider the case of a neighbor of ours. (Disclosure: The Editor of Cecil Times lives in a waterfront home in the “critical area.”) The neighbors, a retired couple, live in Florida for most of the year and use their waterfront home in Cecil County as a summer residence for four months. Being healthy folks, we’ll guestimate their flushing at three times per person per day. That’s six flushes a day times about 120 days a year, or 720 flushes a year, or 3,600 flushes over a five year period.

Now take $13,000 to install the new high-tech system, plus $500 a year for five years for maintenance and electricity costs, adding up to $15,500. Voila—our neighbors’ cost per flush over five years would be about $4.30!

Full-time residents and large families would have a lower cost per flush. But many areas of the Shore that would be affected by the new mandate are dominated by second-residences that contribute very little to the Bay’s pollution but contribute much to the local economy in property and income taxes and purchasing power.

Septic system users are already paying a so-called “flush tax” of $30 a year to contribute to cleanup of the Bay and environmental advocates are calling for doubling that fee to $60 a year. (Adding in the existing “flush tax” and our neighbors’ cost per flush goes up even more.)

“I think the costs far exceed the benefits,” Cecil County commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) said of the Governor’s septic proposals. “You’re taking the system with the least amount of problems and spending the greatest amount of money,” he said.

Hodge said the governor was “barking up the wrong tree” and is out of touch with the realities of life in rural areas, especially on the Shore.

Since the Shore didn’t support O’Malley’s re-election, he may be harboring some of the old Willie Don attitude. Perhaps the Governor’s proposals for job creation will include a new initiative for manufacturing plants on the Shore to produce little outhouse lapel pins for local residents to wear on their next visit to Annapolis.

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One Response to O’Malley to Shore: ‘Flush You’ or the $4 per Flush Mandate

  1. Bob Amato on February 7, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Classic O’Malley. Appeal to the far-left “Greenies” with the cost borne by the worker bees who don’t vote for him anyway. He is polishing his image with a “Savior of the Environment,” “Protector of New Americans”, “Friend of the (union) Worker”, “Champion of all the Downtrodden,” etc. He is definitely looking down I-95 for his next gig, while leaving his successor to clean up the mess.

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