- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

CENTREVILLE, Md. (AP) — Queen Anne’s County is leading the state in addressing potential water pollution from faulty septic tanks, but some residents of the Eastern Shore county say the crackdown goes too far.

The county commission recently enacted Maryland’s first law requiring regular septic pump-outs every five years. Queen Anne’s is also the first county to require pricier “bio-nutrient removal” septic systems for new homes near the water.

The laws were enacted to prevent nitrogen pollution from private homes using faulty septics. Critics say the county government is imposing too much regulation without showing the changes will have much effect on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, which forms the county’s western border.

“It appears this is a do-good, feel-good law you are foisting upon us,” said Jim Flaherty of Stevensville, speaking against the five-year rule at a recent county commission meeting. “Keep your noses out of our business.”

Supporters say the plans make sense considering the county’s position alongside the Chesapeake.

“It’s the right thing to do in terms of protecting our groundwater resources and the Bay,” said Eric Wargotz, a Republican who is president of the Board of County Commissioners and sponsored the five-year septic bill.

The requirements are incomplete but likely would require septic owners to keep records to prove at random audits that they have had their tanks pumped within five years. Mr. Wargotz said such requirements could be a burden to homeowners. But with roughly 11,000 septic systems serving nearly half the county’s residents, Mr. Wargotz said, tougher laws are needed to preserve what makes Queen Anne’s popular with retirees and vacationers.

“We were attracted not only by the rural and agricultural topography, but we were attracted to the water, to the Bay,” he said. “When you make that kind of decision, you have an obligation to protect it for future generations.”

The septic laws, similar to those required in coastal Virginia counties, have been backed by the state Department of the Environment and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

However, not everyone agrees that the septic-pump law will improve the environment. Even the county’s top environmental health officer, John Nickerson, said it’s not clear how much nitrogen floating out of septic tanks ends up in the Chesapeake.

“The environmental impact of this is debatable, to be honest with you,” Mr. Nickerson said.

But the five-year, pump-out requirement could help pinpoint the few homeowners who don’t take care of their septic tanks, he said.

Septic pump-outs are designed to remove “scum mats,” which build up from years of soap, dirt and grease going down the drain. Human waste, a greater threat to the environment and human health, is broken down by bacteria in the tanks or filtered by soil if the tank is full.

Some residents insist that how often they pump their tanks is their business, and that many live in Queen Anne’s part time and therefore don’t need their tanks pumped as often. Residents took special exception to a provision in the law that allows the county to charge residents a fee to cover compliance checks.

Jay Falstad, of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association and a main supporter of the bill, compares pump-out laws to car emissions inspections. Though a conscientious car owner keeps his vehicle in good repair, the state inspections are required because some don’t, hurting the environment for everyone else, he said.

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