MACo Argues for Local Flexibility to Treat Septic Pollution; Opposes BAT Everywhere Mandate

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp was joined by a panel of county planners, environmental health directors, and health officers to testify in opposition to SB 266 before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee (EHE) on January 31, 2017. SB 266, sponsored by Senator and EHE Chair Joan Carter Conway, would require the use best available technology for nitrogen removal (BAT) septic systems in all watersheds of the Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic Coastal Bay, and impaired local waterways. The bill would reinstate a BAT requirement that was repealed by Governor Lawrence “Larry” Hogan and the Maryland Department of the Environment through regulations in 2016. Currently, BAT septic systems are only required with the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays critical areas (defined as being within 1,000 feet of the shoreline).

MACo argued that a broad-based BAT septic system mandate is not:  (1) supported by science; (2) cost-effective to treat the small amount of nitrogen generated by septic systems outside of the critical areas; and (3) removes local flexibility to choose the best method to address local water quality issues. From the MACo testimony:

BAT septic systems can reduce nitrogen emissions over conventional septic systems, but that reduction is contingent on the local hydrologic and geologic conditions where the BAT system is being installed. There is no comprehensive scientific study that shows BAT systems will reduce nitrogen in every location in Maryland. Both the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Geological Survey have questioned the need to require BAT systems everywhere.

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, the removal of the BAT septic system requirement beyond the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Areas will result in only a modest increase in nitrogen from these systems, in the context of the overall Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Additionally, septic systems account for only 6% of the total nitrogen load for the entire Bay watershed and only 8% for Maryland specifically. The nitrogen reduction that will be generated based on the costs required to install (and maintain) BAT systems is neither efficient nor cost-effective.

However, this does not mean that the nitrogen load goes away or can be ignored. Counties must still address both Bay and local water quality issues through their own Watershed Improvement Plans, but should have the flexibility to address those loads in the most appropriate and cost-effective manner. MACo has consistently argued for local flexibility since its first comments to EPA on the proposed Bay TMDL.

Knapp was joined by: (1) Carroll County Environmental Health Director and Maryland Conference of Local Environmental Health Directors Leigh Broderick; (2) Worcester County Director of Environmental Programs Robert Mitchell; (3) Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer; and (4) Caroline County Department of Planning and Codes Director Katheleen Freeman. Various environmental and land use advocates testified in support of the bill.

HB 281 is the cross-file of SB 266 and is scheduled for a hearing before the House Environment and Transportation Committee on February 15.

Useful Links

SB 266 of 2017

MACo Testimony of SB 266

Senator Conway Webpage