Environmental Professor Challenges Baltimore Sun’s BAT Septic Editorial

As previously reported on Conduit Street, the Baltimore Sun editorial “The  Septic Backslide” criticized the recent decision of Governor Lawrence (Larry) Hogan and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to propose regulations repealing the mandatory use of best available nitrogen removal technology (BAT) septic systems outside of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coastal Bay critical areas. In response, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science environmental economics professor Lisa Wainger defended the proposal in a Baltimore Sun op-ed (2106-08-30). Wainger is also chair of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee to the United States Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay Program but is speaking on her own behalf in the op-ed.

Wainger argued: (1) the proposal lets local governments make the most cost-effective decisions to reach their pollution reduction goals; (2) many areas of the State do not benefit from BAT septic systems and that MDE is not removing the BAT mandate where the systems have been shown to be effective; and (3) while the Sun is correct that granting too much flexibility can result in inaction, the BAT septic issue is not a case of local government “whining” but rather getting the best results for the least cost. From the op-ed:

Giving local governments greater control over how to meet environmental targets is fiscally responsible because it promotes cost-effective choices that can be used to meet multiple local needs….Even though BAT is highly effective at removing nitrogen, for many locations, the nitrogen removed would never have reached a place where it could do harm. …

 The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is not backing away from requiring BAT where it does make a difference. The scientific evidence is strong that septics in the critical area affect estuarine water quality and contribute to poor habitat conditions for fish and waterfowl. …

The [Sun] editorial board is right to be concerned that too much flexibility can result in inaction….However, once adequate protections are in place to ensure caps are met, much can be gained from allowing the type of flexibility that promotes innovation and cost-effectiveness. …

Local governments are not “whining,” as suggested by The Sun, when they balk at asking residents to spend money on inappropriate solutions at the expense of other urgent needs. Rather, by making this adjustment to regulations, the government is creating confidence among Maryland residents that they are committed to spending money in appropriate ways to achieve the clean and safe Chesapeake Bay that people want.

Wainger cited Virginia as an example where local flexibility has “paid off,” citing that state’s flexible “bubble permit” system for wastewater treatment plants.

Useful Links

Baltimore Sun “The Septic Backslide” Editorial