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Gov. Hogan Rolls Back Pollution Rules for Sprawl Development

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For 80 percent of Maryland residents, when we flush the toilet, the waste gets treated in a sewage plant to protect the Chesapeake Bay.  State taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the state’s largest sewage plants with state-of-the-art technology.

But 20 percent of state households – mostly those in rural areas – use a far more primitive waste disposal system:  A septic tank.  They are basically pits underground that are designed to slowly leak pollutants into the groundwater and nearby streams.

Septic tanks were not much of a problem when they served a few scattered farmhouses. But then developers began building whole cities of McMansions out in rural areas linked to these old fashioned, leaky waste pits. And that meant more pollution oozing into the bay.

Four years ago, Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration imposed regulations to help address this problem. The rules mandate that any new homes built in areas not served by sewage treatment plants need to install septic systems with the best available nitrogen removal technology, which can cost $10,000 per house.

When Republican Governor Larry Hogan took office last year, real estate developers and their allies in rural county governments complained that the additional costs were hurting profits and suppressing the sales of new homes in places like Carroll and Frederick counties. On so on Monday, the Hogan administration responded by revoking O’Malley’s rule. 

  Instead, Hogan’s Department of the Environment issued proposed regulations that would require these pollution control systems only for about 10 percent new homes – those built within 1,000 feet of bay tributaries.

Hogan’s Secretary of the Environment, Ben Grumbles, issued a written statement that said in part: “This is a measured step to reduce regulatory burden and build public support for a smarter and more effective septic program across the state.”

Grumbles explained that, under Hogan’s new program, the state would step up its inspection and enforcement efforts to focus on failing septic systems – not requiring the best technology for new homes statewide.

“We are customizing the statewide requirement to meet local watershed needs more effectively while still insisting on excellent environmental results,” Grumbles said.

Rona Kobell, who covered the issue for the Bay Journal, said that it does not make sense to limit the requirement for the nitrogen removal equipment only to septic systems built right next to bay tributaries.

“You don’t have to be on the water for your septic system to cause pollution, because it gets into the groundwater, it gets into the drinking water,” Kobell said. “So it is fairly significant that so many septic systems under the rollback will be allowed to continue as is, and that all the new homes that are coming to the rural areas won’t have to have the new septics.”

Richard Hall, the state’s Secretary of Planning under O’Malley, said that the encouraging of more housing developments on septic systems means longer commutes, more air pollution, and more consumption of land.  Houses on septic systems create up to 10 times more pollution than homes on sewer system.

There’s also a fairness issue, Hall suggested, in Hogan giving this break to rural homebuyers.

“They are getting a free ride because they are not removing nutrients when people living in our suburban areas, our towns and our cities, most of them have advanced wastewater treatment systems and are paying sewer bills to remove that nutrient pollution before it gets to the bay,” Hall said.

The big picture is that there is an emerging pattern to Governor Hogan’s record. Although he approved regulations for poultry manure, Hogan killed the red line mass transit rail project in Baltimore, eliminated a mandate for stormwater pollution control fees, and, in May, vetoed alternative energy legislation called the Clean Energy Jobs Act. 

What’s the pattern?  Hogan is pandering to rural Republican voters and stiffing the environment and Chesapeake Bay.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.