House Workgroup “Digs In” To Study Septic System Policies

A House Environment and Transportation Committee Workgroup comprising members of the Subcommittee on the Environment and Committee Chair Kumar Barve held a briefing on July 26 to discuss on-site sewage disposal systems, including septic systems. Following the defeat of legislation during the 2017 Session (HB 281/SB 266) that would have reinstated a requirement to use best available technology for nitrogen removal (BAT) septic systems for all new construction everywhere in the state, the Committee agreed to discuss the issue during the interim. Currently, BAT septic systems are required for new homes and replacement septic systems within the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area. Delegate Stephen Lafferty is chair of the Workgroup.

The Workgroup is considering:

  • the amount of pollution from septic systems, and whether there is a need to put any more emphasis on reducing pollution from septic systems;
  • the impact of expanding the use of BAT systems outside of the Critical Area, and what factors might be considered for using BAT in such areas (such as proximity to nitrogen-impaired waterways, soil types and conditions, etc.);
  • whether monies from the Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) are being prioritized appropriately to address pollution from septic systems;
  • potential requirements on the operation, maintenance, and pump-outs of conventional septic systems; and
  • whether each county is achieving its Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load and Watershed Implementation Plan goals for pollution from septic systems.

Stakeholders who testified at the all-afternoon briefing included: (1) the Maryland Department of the Environment; (2) the Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association (MOWPA); (3) BAT septic system manufacturers and installers; (4) the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; (5) 1000 Friends of Maryland; (6) Clean Water Action; (7) Chester River Association; (8) Maryland Building Industry Association; (9) Maryland Association of Realtors; and (10) Maryland Farm Bureau.

MACo and the Maryland Conference of Local Environmental Health Directors also testified as a joint panel. Speakers included: (1) MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp; (2) Conference President and Baltimore County Ground Water Management, Environmental Protection and Sustainability Manager Kevin Koepenick; (3) Worcester County Director of Environmental Programs Robert Mitchell; and (4) Carroll County Environmental Health Director Leigh Broderick.

The MACo and the Environmental Health Directors  testimony include four key points, consistent with MACo’s longstanding position on the issue:

  1. No mandatory expansion of BAT Septic Systems Beyond the Critical Area
  2. Need to incentivize maintenance and streamline enforcement for the operation and maintenance of BAT septic systems
  3. Greater flexibility for using BRF monies for connecting septic systems to public sewer
  4. Need further study on the effectiveness of BAT septic systems and State and local staffing needs

From MACo’s written testimony:

BAT septic systems can reduce nitrogen emissions over conventional septic systems, but the amount of reduction is contingent on the local hydrologic and geologic conditions where the BAT system is being installed. The usage of BAT systems makes sense within the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area and for specific sites determined by the county or health department to require BAT.

However, MACo and the Conference oppose any mandatory expansion of BAT septic systems beyond the critical area. A broad-based BAT septic system mandate is not: (1) supported by science; (2) cost-effective; and (3) necessarily the best method to address local water quality and the small amount of nitrogen that BAT systems would allegedly reduce.

Both MACo and the Conference would oppose any mandatory O&M inspection or enforcement requirements placed on county governments. However, MACo and the Conference could potentially support statutory or regulatory changes that would incentivize O&M compliance or streamline the enforcement process. An optional property tax credit for compliant BAT systems could help with enforcement. Providing for a simple fine in lieu of a criminal misdemeanor could also potentially resolve compliance issues.

MACo and the Conference support having greater flexibility to use Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) monies to connect properties with septic systems to public sewer where practicable. Many counties have utilized or considered utilizing BRF monies for this purpose and the environmental and public health benefits are substantial.

A successful BAT septic program needs infrastructure, staffing, and reasonable incentives/sanctions to encourage compliance. What would it realistically take to stay on top of the septic BAT program? Answers to this question might be learned by identifying and then studying other jurisdictions that are successfully addressing this issue

The Workgroup has expressed its intention to meet at least one more time on these topics before the 2018 session and will likely propose some mix of legislative and policy recommendations.

Useful Links

HB 281 / SB 266 of 2017

MACo/Environmental Health Director Testimony to Workgroup

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of BAT Septic System Issues