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Senate committee OKs 'flush tax'

March 12, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

A plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay through new sewage fees passed a key legislative committee Thursday.

Public sewer customers would be charged $30 a year and septic users would be charged 8 cents a gallon each time they have their tanks pumped under a plan approved by the House Environmental Matters Committee.

First proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, the so-called "flush tax" on sewer customers would raise $66 million a year for upgrades to the state's largest sewage treatment plants that dump waste water into the bay watershed.

Another $12 million would be generated by a proposed septic fee tacked on by the committee.

Homeowners would get 60 percent of that back in the form of grants and loans to improve septic systems. Farmers would get the other 40 percent to plant cover crops to prevent runoff.

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In another nod to farmers, the committee folded in a proposal to streamline farm runoff regulations from the 1998 Nutrient Management law.

Committee Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh, D-Baltimore, said the package should appeal to lawmakers from rural areas.

"If you're from the farming community, you'd have to sit there and look hard and fast at this before you voted against it," she said.

No Washington County lawmakers sit on the committee, which voted unanimously to send the bill to the floor of the House of Delegates. A vote could take place there as soon as next week.

Local governments had complained that the sewer fee would be a burden on their customers and would be costly to collect. In response, the committee proposed allowing local governments to keep more of the fee - 5 percent instead of 3 percent - to cover administrative costs, McIntosh said.

The septic fee will be paid by septic tank pumping services when they dump the waste at local waste water treatment plants, said McIntosh, who expects those businesses to pass on the fee to their customers.

Industrial and commercial waste water users who don't have their own treatment plants will be charged based on their outflows, but not more than $105,000 a year, she said. Previously, the cap had been $150,000.

Improving the sewer systems that handle 95 percent of the state's waste water is one of the most cost-effective ways to clean up the bay, Secretary of the Environment Kendl Philbrick said at a hearing last week. It would cut the amount of nitrogen flowing into the bay by 7.5 million pounds per year, which represents one-third of the amount Maryland has committed to cutting by 2010 under a pact made with other bay states.

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