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Maryland Politics
Posted at 05:25 PM ET, 04/06/2012

Md. House approves septic system limits; other environmental bills in limbo

This post has been updated.

A bill to limit where new subdivisions served by septic systems can be built won approval Friday in the Maryland House of Delegates. The bill now heads back to the Senate, which passed its own version last week.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has argued such limits are needed to curb residential sprawl and reduce the waste that leaches from septic systems and pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.


A waning crescent moon hangs over the Chesapeake Bay just before sunrise in North Beach, Md., Dec. 22, 2011. (Ray K. Saunders - The Washington Post)
The bill would require that counties adopt a “tiered” system of rules governing the use of septic systems, with the most restrictive rules applying to predominantly rural and forested areas.

A House panel added some minor amendments but left unchanged a contentious Senate compromise, which stripped out provisions that would have given the state final authority to decide where septic systems could be installed.

The bill passed by a wide margin along mostly party lines, but with Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard) casting a “protest vote” against the measure. Bobo said afterward that the bill was “watered down too much” from the version O’Malley originally introduced. “I think we just went too far” in compromising, she said.

Another environmental bill that lawmakers may soon sign off on would ban the use of arsenic-containing feed additives in Maryland’s poultry industry. A version of the bill that passed the Senate on Thursday will soon go to the full House for a floor vote.

And a Senate committee on Friday voted to approve raising the cost of residents’ “flush tax,” which is used to fund wastewater treatment upgrades. The measure, which already passed the House, now goes to the full Senate.

But with Monday’s scheduled adjournment fast approaching, several other high-profile environmental bills remain mired in negotiations. One of them would force nine large counties and Baltimore to charge residents a storm water utility fee. The money would go toward clean water projects that supporters said would help localities meet federal mandates to reduce pollution runoff to the bay.

The bill passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), the committee chair, said Thursday she is waiting until lawmakers reach a compromise on the budget before taking action on the bill. Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), another committee member, said he expects the panel to vote on the bill Saturday.

Also in limbo are several bills intended to protect the environment in the event Maryland allows energy companies to drill for shale gas deep below the state’s westernmost counties. One of them would impose a fee on natural gas companies to fund Maryland’s study of the controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

The bill — which passed the House and is languishing in Carter Conway’s committee — would require companies that hold drilling leases in Western Maryland to pay the state $15 per leased acre toward the study, which currently has no funding source.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery), said the measure has enough support among both committee members and the full Senate.

“We just need to have the bill come up for a clean vote” in the committee, she said. “I have seen bills move through this chamber very quickly in past ... It’s not over until it’s over.”

Last June, O’Malley ordered a three-year study be conducted before any wells could be drilled. In Pennsylvania and other states that allow shale gas drilling, some have blamed fracking for contaminated water supplies and other environmental damages.

Another fracking-related bill — stipulating that Maryland would collect 7.5 percent of the wholesale value of any natural gas that might be produced — passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate Budget and Taxation committee, where there are deliberations with those who feel the severance tax rate should be lower, Mizeur said.

By Greg Masters  |  05:25 PM ET, 04/06/2012

 
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