O'Malley presses for his enviro bills

Wind, septics, flush fee on the agenda

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Published 02/14/12

To make his case for limiting new septic systems, Gov. Martin O'Malley said you don't have to look any further than the rivers around Annapolis.

Pointing to a pie chart on a screen in a Senate hearing room Tuesday, he noted that one-third of the nitrogen pollution in the Magothy, Severn and South rivers comes from septic systems.

While septic systems comprise a small portion of pollution across the Chesapeake Bay, it's one of the fastest-growing sources.

"Septic pollution is one area where we've totally failed," O'Malley said.

If sprawl development on septic systems isn't curtailed, O'Malley warned, the rest of the state could soon be much like Anne Arundel.

"This is a vision of Christmas future," he said.

O'Malley's septic system proposal would set up a four-tier system that counties would have to follow for approving new septic systems. There would be more steps to approve housing developments on septic systems.

If enacted, O'Malley contends the system would avoid thousands of new systems, while not totally outlawing their use.

The septic system bill was one of three bills that O'Malley testified on before a pair of state Senate committees Tuesday afternoon.

O'Malley's other bills include:

- Changing how Marylanders are charged for the "flush fee" in order to double the amount of money collected. The money is used for modernizing sewage plants, upgrading existing septic systems and planting cover crops on farms.

- Requiring utility companies to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from yet-to-be-built offshore wind farms. While O'Malley is making a strong push for his bills, opponents are pushing back.

Some residential and business electricity customers worry about their monthly bills increasing due to the windpower bill.

And farmers, builders and rural lawmakers worry about the septic system bill, saying it would clamp down on growth in areas that might benefit from new homes.

The flush fee bill, meanwhile, will result in a fee increase for most Marylanders — rarely, if ever, a popular idea. The amount of the fee would be switched from a flat fee to one that's based on water consumption.

State Sen. Ed Reilly, a Crofton Republican and member of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, raised concerns about both the septic and the flush fee bills.

He wondered if there might be less-contentious and less-costly bay-saving practices that should be done before clamping down on septic systems.

"Aren't we putting an awful lot of money and effort into a small slice?" he asked.

Reilly also noted that many constituents have sent him copies of their water and sewer bills. Most of them would see big increases to the flush fee if the governor's proposal passes, he said.

A nonpartisan analysis estimates a family that uses 5,000 gallons of water per month would see the annual fee go from $30 to $66.60. In Anne Arundel, the fee is paid quarterly.

O'Malley's appearances on Tuesday represent his third and fourth trips to legislative committees during the General Assembly session. He already has testified twice in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage before committees in the last couple weeks.

Asked about his frequent trips down Bladen Street to the committee hearing rooms, O'Malley jokingly blamed lawmakers for scheduling the hearings so close to one another.

(Revised Feb 2012)