Council taking on controversial issues
Pamela Wood — The Capital Workers install a new kind of septic system which cuts in half the amount of harmful nitrogen that enters the groundwater and ultimately winds up in creeks and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay. The County Council will debate tomorrow  whether to require more homeowners to have the pollution-reducing septic systems.

Considers requiring upgraded septic systems in Critical Area

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, November 16, 2008

As the County Council prepares to debate tomorrow whether to require more homeowners to have pollution-reducing septic systems, environment officials are encouraging people to install them voluntarily.

A state grant program is available to dramatically reduce the costs, but participation has been slow.

Just 63 county homeowners have participated, getting an average of $17,700 toward the new systems, according to the county Health Department, which administers the program.

"We got the most money initially and we're still using that money," said Ed Peters, an environmental sanitarian for the Health Department.

The money comes from the state's Bay Restoration Fund - better known to most Marylanders as the $30 annual "flush fee."

The flush fee money paid by property owners with septic systems is spent on the septic upgrades and winter cover crops for farmers. The flush fee money from property owners on public sewers goes toward upgrading sewage treatment plants.

The new kinds of septic systems cut in half the amount of harmful nitrogen that exits the septic system, enters the groundwater and ultimately winds up in creeks and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay.

Nitrogen is found naturally in the environment, but when it flows into water in high concentrations, it feeds the growth of algae. When the algae die, they suck life-sustaining oxygen from the water, leading to the bay's infamous "dead zones" where crabs, fish and oysters can't survive.

"Every time you hear about the Chesapeake Bay, you hear about nitrogen," Mr. Peters said.

There are various technologies that accomplish the nitrogen reduction in septic tanks. Most involve some sort of aeration and recirculating the waste through the holding tanks. One way or another, the new systems convert nitrogen to harmless nitrogen gas.

The drain fields - the pipes and underground layers of sand or gravel that spread the water out after it leaves the tanks - are the same as in traditional systems and aren't covered by the grants.

"They're really mini-wastewater treatment systems," Mr. Peters said.

'A good deal'

During the first round of flush fee grants, Anne Arundel County received the most of any county: $2.6 million for two years. The initial two-year period is nearly up and the Health Department hasn't given out all the money, so the county will have to ask for an extension.

The $2.6 million is enough to pay for about 130 nitrogen-reducing septic tanks, plus installation, permits, and five years of maintenance by a private company. So far, 63 have been installed.

The cost of the new units has been going down, as more companies develop the nitrogen-reducing technology.

Priority goes to homeowners in the Critical Area who have failing septic tanks, but anyone with a septic tank is eligible to apply.

So far, applications have been so scarce that no one has been turned away. But Mr. Peters warned, "Applications seem to be picking up a bit."

The state has been running a radio ad for the grants, and the Health Department has been improving its community outreach. A postcard mailing is in the works, and some people have called after hearing about the proposed legislation.

"Because people are better informed, we're seeing more applications," said Bill Deck, a program manager for sanitary engineering.

Paul and Rosemary Smith were the very first county residents to get a flush fee grant to pay for nitrogen-reducing septic tanks.

They realized the drain field outside their home south of Annapolis was failing in 2007, when liquid sometimes would sit on the grass. When their contractor applied for a permit, the Health Department recognized the couple might be able to take advantage of the grant.

Ultimately, the Smiths paid for a new drain field, about $6,000, while the grant paid about $13,500 for the new septic tanks, according to the couple and the county.

"It's a good deal," Mr. Smith said.

Mrs. Smith said they were fortunate that the program was beginning right when their system failed. "The timing was great," she said.

So far, the system has had only a few glitches, and the couple is happy to be polluting less, especially since they live right on Harness Creek, which flows into the South River.

Council debate

The average home on a septic system releases 29 pounds of nitrogen into the groundwater each year. At a minimum, the new systems reduce nitrogen by 50 percent; often they do better, Mr. Peters said.

The nitrogen reduction is especially important at homes near the water, where liquid from a septic tank doesn't have far to go before reaching a river or creek.

This is why the county requires the nitrogen-reducing septics for new homes being built in the Critical Area, a zone within 1,000 feet of the water that has special restrictions.

And it's why three councilmen introduced a bill requiring that any time a septic system is replaced at existing homes in the Critical Area, the nitrogen-reducing systems have to be used, too.

There are 40,000 septic systems in the county and one-third - 13,250 - are in the Critical Area.

There are some concerns about the bill, however. For example, the sponsors of the bill point to the fact that grant money is available as a way of lessening the financial impact of the requirement.

But there are about 210 replacement septic systems put into the Critical Area each year, and the amount of grant money isn't enough to cover all of them.

County councilmen expressed concerns Tuesday that there would not be enough money to go around and the bill would create an unfunded mandate for homeowners.

They also said they worried the program would encourage septic owners to replace their tanks instead of hook into the county's sewer system, which takes more nitrogen out of the environment than the enhanced septic systems do.

The discussions will continue at tomorrow's regular County Council meeting. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert St. in Annapolis.

Staff writer Erin Cox contributed to this report.

(Revised November 2008)