Baltimore Sun Says Septic Legislation Still Alive

7 Mar

Septic curb not dead yetIn recent years, the Maryland General Assembly has approved legislation curbing power plant emissions, agreed to impose stricter standards on automobile emissions and gave environmental groups standing to legally contest government-issued permits and variances. What do all these decisions have in common?

All are important environmental initiatives, but more to the point, all required more than one 90-day session to pass. In the case of legal standing, it took a decade worth of legislative sessions before lawmakers worked out a compromise that satisfied a majority.

That’s important to keep in mind with Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to restrict the proliferation of septic systems in Maryland. As expected, the legislation has run into stiff opposition from rural lawmakers, advocates for the real estate industry, farmers and others who fear its potentially chilling impact on the economy.

Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, believes the legislation would be best served if put to a task force of experts and interested parties to look at all aspects of the issue. Typically, such a group would make recommendations between now and next fall for the 2012 session on how best to rewrite the bill.

Some may be tempted to chalk that up as a loss for Mr. O’Malley, particularly as the bill’s first hearing is still a week away. But one suspects Delegate McIntosh, a reliable ally to environmental causes, is thinking much more strategically. Better to rework the legislation than allow opponents to vilify its intent — and potentially doom its long-term prospects.

Make no mistake, Maryland can’t continue to ignore the pollution produced by septic tanks — at least not if the state intends to be serious about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. A house on septic produces 10 times as much nitrogen as one hooked up to a wastewater treatment system that is typically available around cities and towns.

Septics certainly aren’t a primary source of pollution to the bay, but they are a growing threat. It’s not unreasonable to insist on higher standards for them — or to encourage developers to use less polluting alternatives.

Mr. O’Malley seemed to concede this point in a recent letter to Delegate McIntosh when he acknowledged that “pulling together stakeholders” was a good idea and was ready to work with her. But given the timing (the bill was delivered relatively late, and the session is down to its final six weeks), it’s hard to see such a major undertaking accomplished before sine die on April 11.

But that’s not a tragedy. The stakes are far higher than however many septic tanks will be installed between now and 2012. This is about the tens of thousands of septic tanks that are likely to proliferate between now and 2035 and beyond.

Opponents have expressed some reasonable concerns about the bill. If, for instance, the state bans large subdivisions from using septic systems, might that only result in builders creating more mini-developments with only a handful of homes that are exempt from the legislation? In theory, that could cause more harm than good.

The governor is welcome to fight for his bill this session all he wants, but Delegate McIntosh has a pretty good track record on environmental initiatives, too. Better to get a carefully-considered measure passed in 2012 then exhaust political capital pushing legislation that has little chance of passage in 2011.

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