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Reforming septic rules could conserve land

Imagine if one of our major automakers proposed a model line of gas-wasting, air-fouling vehicles that used 60-year-old technology.

Unthinkable, of course; but it’s little different than what homebuilders and developers propose when they plan most new rural subdivisions.

Their outdated model lineup combines sprawl development — a hugely wasteful use of land — with septic tanks, the highest polluting form of waste treatment, largely unimproved for more than half a century.

Proposals to change this — most lately Gov. Martin O’Malley’s attempt to ban most development on septic tanks — are met with predictable cries from builders and land speculators. Housing will become unaffordable, the economy will crash, development will scream to a halt, they say.

Their cries remind us of the auto industry’s doom-saying as it fought seat belts, airbags, higher mileage standards and pollution controls.

We’re unused to thinking of development as a technology, but it is.

Sprawl, the building on large lots outside areas planned for more compact growth, is bound to septic tanks. You don’t have one without the other.

The workings of septic tanks

Septic tanks won’t work on small lots because they need space to filter sewage. Public sewer doesn’t serve spread-out development because it’s too expensive to run lines.

A septic tank, a concrete tank buried somewhere in the yard into which your toilets flush, is probably what you have if you aren’t hooked up to public sewage. Created to replace outhouses and cesspools, septic tanks remove bacteria from wastewater by settling out solids and percolating the water through underground drainage fields.

Unlike a modern sewage treatment plant, septic tanks were never designed to remove nitrogen, the Chesapeake Bay’s biggest pollutant. Indeed, they facilitate the water-soluble nutrient’s passage into groundwater and thence into streams, rivers and the Bay.

How much nitrogen a septic tank emits compared with a sewage treatment plant depends on its location, but it can be from four to 10 times as much, according to water quality regulators. A newer, more expensive type of septic tank can cut nitrogen in half but still cannot match what a treatment plant can remove. Only Maryland requires these new tanks, and then only within a thousand feet of tidal waters.

Septic tanks are the source of about 6 percent of the nitrogen that pollutes the estuary. This may not sound like a lot until you look at the huge pollution reductions every state in the Bay watershed must make.

Sprawl’s adverse impacts

But Gov. O’Malley’s plan goes beyond controlling nitrogen.

The governor recognized that nearly a third of the quarter-million or so new households projected for Maryland by 2020 are likely to be on septic tanks. His proposal — no development of five or more homes that isn’t hooked to a sewage treatment plant — would push this growth toward planned areas.

It would do more to rein in sprawl than decades of talking about “Smart Growth.”

The adverse impacts of sprawl go far beyond water quality. They include loss of farms, forests and wetlands; more air pollution from longer commutes; and higher taxes from added costs of school buses, utilities, fire, police and roads.

None of this has overcome development interests, which are sometimes augmented by farmers wishing to maximize their options to cash out. Perhaps O’Malley’s drawing a clear link between bad land use and bad waste management can succeed where reciting sprawl’s litany of problems has failed.

Farmers and other landowners who want to carve out a few lots for their children or for income would still be allowed a few under the governor’s proposal.

There would be adjustments and short-term pain for developers, whose industry makes up about a fifth of Maryland’s economy; but think of the adjustments sprawl development and water pollution force on the fifth of Maryland’s economy that comes from farming and fishing.

Substantial shortfalls

Pennsylvania and Virginia have more rural poor than Maryland, whose poor are largely urban, so septic restrictions might be somewhat different there.

What the three major Bay states share is a substantial shortfall in the plans they have submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce pollution from septic tanks.

One irony that should not derail the Maryland proposal, but must be dealt with, is that septic tanks do not let the polluting phosphorus in human waste enter the Bay, because it binds to soil in the ground.

To the extent that development switches to sewer from septic, sewage treatment plants will have to remove more phosphorus — otherwise, reducing one Bay pollutant could increase another.

Maryland’s legislature will study the governor’s proposal this summer. We hope it comes back strong, because it provides a rare opportunity to improve two of the Bay’s most glaring problems at once, excessive nitrogen and sprawl development.

Freelance writer Tom Horton covered the bay for 33 years for The Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He wrote this article for the Bay Journal News Service.


  1. Dear Mr. Horton,

    I like you a lot, but your approach to wastewater treatment, especially septic systems, is wrong.

    It is not a matter of septic versus sewers, BOTH technologies can work very well. Each is bad if they are poorly designed, poorly sited, poorly inspected or poorly maintained. Unfortunately, too many of BOTH have such problems. BOTH need improvements in technology, installation, maintenance and inspection – and each will continue to need improvements – that is the nature of doing things right – the same applies to sewers as to septic systems.

    It is not which is better, because each technology has its place, but that each, and let us not forget waterless technologies, be used correctly, evaluated fairly, and improved at every opportunity.

    Don’t think that eliminating septics will reduce sprawl. The small package plants which would inevitably spread out over the landscape may create an even worst situation.

    We need a balanced approach.

    Simple steps in the fairness direction would be for the Bay Program’s nutrient model to account for 1) reported leaks from sewer line breaks, 2) for that nutrient-laden sewage sludge which is applied on land but which then becomes “non-point source” pollution.

    Septic treatment technology has improved significantly, especially in the last several decades, so please do not treat it as simply a kin to outhouses. That septic systems remove almost all phosphorus is not just “ironic” but is very important in the calculations. The Bay restoration plan requires reductions in phosphorus too – too much nitrogen and phosphorus causes the dead zones.

    Claims of health hazards from failing septic systems are vastly exaggerated. At the same time, major spills from sewer systems, hundreds of thousands of gallons or even millions of gallons of raw sewage, are routinely discounted as “small problems.” The following is only one example of many:

    “Untreated wastewater overflows into Maryland Creek”
    By Kafia A. Hosh Washington Post, October 29, 2009

    An estimated 130,000 gallons of wastewater flowed into a Maryland creek after a valve was accidentally opened and heavy rains caused a high flow at the Piscataway Wastewater Treatment Plant in Accokeek. Untreated, diluted wastewater streamed into Piscataway Creek from 6:10 a.m. to 10:16 a.m., according to the plant’s operator, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

    The overflow was cleaned up about 5 p.m., and 17 signs about it were posted in the area. WSSC spokeswoman Lyn Riggins said the overflow had little impact since most recreational activities at the creek take place in the spring and summer months.

    She said the overflow was caused by heavy rains this week and an operator who accidentally opened a valve. The last major overflow within the WSSC district was May 23, when an estimated 20,475 gallons of untreated wastewater overflowed into a wooded area and a large storm drain leading to an unnamed tributary of the Patuxent River in Laurel.”

    Having worked for years around the Washington metropolitan area on stream and river restoration projects, I found that such experiences with malfunctioning or broken sewer lines are much too common. Stream protection and restoration efforts which took years of work and millions of dollars have been undone in an instant with a sewer break, and it is not just limited to old lines or human error.

    It is very true that septic users should know more about their systems, but it is wrong to expect them to maintain them. That is a job for professionals just as the maintanance of our heating systems. However, sewer users who sneer at septic users for “not knowing where their septic systems are located” are typically quite clueless themselves about how frequently their toilet contributions don’t make it to the sewer plant. Paying attention to the integrity of sewer lines should be just as important as the efficiency of the sewer plants. It doesn’t matter if the sewer plant is 100% effective if the stuff doesn’t get there.

    Each waste-water treatment technology when properly designed, sited, inspected and maintained has its place. Each needs to be used correctly, evaluated fairly, and improved at every opportunity. Without a fair and balanced approach, our efforts to restore the bay will falter.

  2. Thank you Mr. Cummins.

    A well maintained septic system works. Recently we had our system pumped by Eddie Guy septic in St, marys County. The technician Fenwick drew a diagram and explained exactly how the system works. He gave us high marks for our part in maintaining the system between pump outs . As a septic user I would like to see more innovation like the composting systems used in our state parks. For me the real problem is impervious surface and storm water management. Let’s fix those issues and create more jobs.