Cecil County Faces $600 Million Tab for Bay Pollution Cleanup; New Flush Rules for Homeowners
Cecil County Commissioners got the preliminary bill Tuesday on how much it will cost to comply with state and federal mandates to limit pollution flowing to the Chesapeake Bay: nearly $600 million and counting.
The cost per household is calculated at about $16,000, although individual property owners with septic systems could face higher costs if they are forced to dig up existing tanks and install nitrogen-reduction systems and extend electricity lines to operate the tanks.
But the Commissioners still have choices to make that could alter the overall county cost figure slightly, while easing the burden somewhat on individual homeowners.
Cecil County must draft a “watershed implementation plan” (WIP) to reduce water pollution and submit it to the state in the next few weeks. County Commissioners will have some tough decisions to make — something that the current Board of Commissioners has not shown itself to be able to do without multiple delays and re-consideration on a variety of issues.
Scott Flanigan, the county’s Director of Public Works and a professional engineer, has been warning the Commissioners for months that the costs of the WIP mandates would be staggering. He and his staff outlined a series of options at a Tuesday worksession and offered a recommended option that was the least costly alternative with the greatest impact on pollution reduction.
That option would involve converting 3,502 existing homes’ septic systems to de-nitrification equipment, and hooking up 2,416 homes with current septic to county or town sewage treatment plants. (The county plan did not include the town of Elkton, since that town has its own discharge permits from the state and an allocation of allowable stormwater runoff.)
But documents presented to the commissioners show some other options, including a possible mandate for homeowners with existing septic systems to pump their tanks every five years. Such a five-year mandate would mean that 4,000 septic systems would be pumped per year in the county, Flanigan said.
However, some local governments in other states mandate pumping every three years, with the costs borne by individual homeowners. Depending upon the size of a tank, a pump-out costs under $300, or $100 a year if a three-year pump mandate were to be imposed.
Compare that cost to the potential $20,000 up front costs of digging up an existing tank, installing a nitrogen-reduction system and extending electricity to the outdoor system—as well as ongoing costs of electricity to operate the system—and many homeowners might prefer to accept a pump-out mandate rather than a new high-tech system mandate.
Owners of existing properties located in the “critical area,” or within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay or waterways flowing into the Bay, are already under a 2009 state law’s mandate to install nitrogen-reduction systems if their current septic systems fail. The new WIP proposals could mandate such high-tech systems in the critical area and in other parts of the county even if existing septic systems are not failing.
Stormwater runoff is also part of the WIP pollution-reduction plan, but Flanigan said the county would get “more bang for the buck in the septic arena” since wastewater carries more pollutants and improvements are actually cheaper to make than broad-based stormwater runoff curbs in areas that are already developed.
The septic part of the plan is calculated to cost $134.5 million by 2020 while the stormwater fixes could tally $423.9 million. In addition, an already planned upgrade of the county’s Seneca Point sewage treatment plant to meet state mandates would cost $38.6 million.
Flanigan said that the state’s computer models did not account for costs associated with the Bay cleanup program so his staff had to extrapolate cost figures based on individual options and their impact on curbing pollution. He said that omission by the state was intentional, and “they didn’t want to scare the crap out of people” by showing the costs up-front.
The proposals had a sobering impact on the Commissioners, but there were no indications of which menu of options they would ultimately choose to send to the state as part of the mandatory plan that is due in the next two weeks.
Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) said the county’s submission to the state should be crafted with “a lot of outs” so it is not perceived as a “contract” between the county and the state or the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) said the county should be “very cautious” and “keep all our options open.” She also opined that if there is a change in the White House in the next election, there might be an easing of the mandates by the EPA. Some candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have railed against government environmental mandates.
The costs outlined Tuesday do not include the total picture of the looming sewage financial crisis facing Cecil County. The recent decision by a Broomell-led majority of the commissioners to scrap a contract with the private Artesian Resources firm for acquisition of four county sewage plants will transfer more than $10 million in needed upgrade costs to the county.
And the costs of any future extension of services into the Elkton West area and the county’s growth corridor could cost another $62 million. [SEE previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/10/cecil-county-extension-of-sewers-in-elkton-west-could-cost-62-million/