Maryland Bill Will Mandate Nitrogen-Removing Septic Systems Near Chesapeake

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

All new homes built within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries in Maryland will be required to have nitrogen-removing septic systems, under legislation passed this year by the General Assembly.

The measure, which is expected to be signed into law by the governor, will also require failing septic systems within "critical areas" to be replaced with nitrogen-removing systems that are generally more expensive.

Too much nitrogen in waterways creates algae blooms and other problems that can decrease oxygen levels, sometimes killing animals and plants.

"If you live in a critical area and are on a septic system, up to 80 percent of the nitrogen in your septic system can reach surface waters," said Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. The upgrades will "cut the nitrogen load in half," she said.

The state estimates that there are 51,000 homes in critical areas and that about 500 new ones will be built or need replacement systems each year.

Charles County's updated plan for sensitive areas, which hasn't been approved, uses the "exact same language" as the state legislation, outlining a 1,000-foot buffer, said Jason Groth, the county's chief of resource infrastructure management.

"Since these systems are relatively new and we are just getting started with them, it made sense to go with the most sensitive areas first," Groth said. "If the program is successful, we may apply that in a greater geographic area."

About 40 percent of homes in Charles have septic systems. In St. Mary's and Calvert counties, that number is nearly 90 percent.

According to 2004 state data, St. Mary's had 21,885 septic systems, and nearly one-third were in sensitive areas. There were more than 22,000 in Charles, with more than 1,100 in critical areas. Calvert had more than 25,300 systems; nearly 5,000 of those were along sensitive areas.

"Especially in St. Mary's and Calvert, we have a much larger portion of residential served by septic systems than the northern counties," said David Brownlee, Calvert's environmental planner. It is important to focus on septic systems to try to reduce the amount of harmful nutrients in the water, he said.

In 2005, the state adopted a "flush tax," requiring homes with septic systems to pay a $30 fee. The money went into the Bay Restoration Fund, and since July, 2007, the tax funds have been used for grants covering 100 percent of the costs of installing nitrogen-removing systems or replacing failing systems.

Since then, Calvert has received more than $2.5 million to replace systems; Charles, more than $600,000; and St. Mary's, about $176,000.

The state legislation says that the Department of the Environment will continue to provide grants but that for new homes, state funding will cover only the difference between the cost of a regular septic system and a nitrogen-removing one.

The legislation was opposed by the home-building and real estate industries, which said the requirements would hurt a market that is already struggling.

Paula Martino, government affairs director for the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors, said that the legislation does not assure new home owners the grant money.

The cost of a new system will be added to a home's selling price, and homes with failing systems "could really throw a monkey wrench" in some sales, she said. If a system is replaced before a sale, the "homeowners are more likely going to have to eat that cost unless things change significantly in the next three or four years," Martino said.

The septic system bill was among several environmental measures passed by the legislature in the session that ended last week. Also among them was a promise to reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent in the state by 2020 and to remove phosphorus from fertilizers sold in Maryland.

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