Press Release
February 14, 2011

New Legislation Requires Alternatives to Septics
in Major Developments

Bill will reduce pollution, support Smart Growth and agriculture preservation

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—New legislation released today will require that major new subdivisions have access to public sewer systems or install technologies to treat sewage in order to reduce nitrogen pollution. Nitrogen pollution is one of the leading causes of dead zones, harmful algae blooms, and fish kills in the Chesapeake Bay. Currently, septic systems are used in parts of the state that don't have access to public sewers. These systems prevent bacteria pollution, but do little to reduce nitrogen pollution.

"We must realize that where we choose to sleep, eat, and live effects our environment and our Bay," said Governor O'Malley. "Together, we've made great progress in recent years to put the Bay back on a path to a healthy future, but where we have failed thus far is curbing pollution from the proliferation of septic systems. Together, we can put a stop to this by implementing a common-sense ban on septic systems in major Maryland developments, consistent with what many counties have already done."

Per household, the pollution coming from new developments on septic systems is almost five times greater than pollution from developments with public sewer services. The legislation would allow subdivisions to utilize available technologies that can link groups of homes to a central treatment system, as long as the development has a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment. That will allow for growth while significantly reducing nitrogen pollution.

"Septic systems pollute twice—first when household sewage leaches from them into our waterways and second from the runoff created by all the new roads, driveways, and rooftops that are built in rural areas without public sewer and water," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Executive Director of Thousand Friends of Maryland. "We cannot afford for more poorly planned development to become the last crop on our farmland. It's time we stop wasting our open spaces and farm land, and grow more thoughtfully and cost effectively." The average size for lots on septic systems is between seven and eight times greater than those with public services, thus eating up acres of farmland, forest, and open space.

"This legislation is intended to help us address growth that is beyond those areas serviced by existing infrastructure like schools, roads, and water and sewer," said Del. Stephen Lafferty, sponsor of the legislation in the House. "It also helps us address the development that is eating up our valuable farmland."

There are already 430,000 septic systems in use in Maryland, responsible for seven percent of the nitrogen pollution damaging local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. The Maryland Department of Planning projects that number to increase by 145,000 septic systems over the next 25 years.

"Building new developments dependent on individual septic systems puts our bay at greater risk and may make it more difficult to comply with new federal pollution control directives," said Senator Paul Pinsky, sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. "A smart, thoughtful septic system policy is crucial to cleaning up the bay and in particular reducing nitrogen and implementing a smart growth policy."

"Large scale development without sewage treatment makes no sense in a modern society—it is an old fashioned, out-of-date, twentieth-century practice. Major developments on septic systems are extremely costly to the environment and the taxpayer," said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker. "With good planning, developers win, taxpayers win, jobs are created, and the result is clean water, a healthy environment, and a strong economy."

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Map of Maryland Improved Parcels on Septic SystemsMap courtesy Maryland Department of Planning

Note: The Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) has projections on the number of new septic systems in Maryland in coming years, and the impact on pollution, on its Smart Growth Goals, Measures, and Indicators website. (scroll down the page to "Impact of Septic Systems")

According to MDP, about 3.6 million pounds of nitrogen flows into the Chesapeake Bay from Maryland septic systems each year. Without limiting the development of new septic systems, MDP projects that over the next 20 years 145,000 new septic systems will result in a 34 percent increase in the Bay's total nitrogen load.

 

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