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Bid to exempt septic tank users fails

April 08, 2004

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - An attempt to exempt septic tank users from a $30-a-year sewer fee to help pay for Chesapeake Bay restoration failed in the Maryland Senate on Wednesday.

Senate Republicans argued that septic users don't represent a large part of the pollution problem.

They also said state officials don't know how they would collect the fee for septic users beginning July 1, 2005.

Public sewer customers would see the fee on their bills as soon as July.

Backers of the fee argued that everyone shares in the environmental responsibility.

"Every member of this body and every resident of this state is contributing to the death of the Chesapeake Bay," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore.

About $66 million a year contributed by public sewer customers would be used to upgrade the sewage treatment plants that discharge into the bay's watershed.

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Money that septic users pay would go toward grants and loans for septic upgrades and cover crops so farmers could reduce runoff.

The fee bill has already passed the House and is likely to pass the Senate today, but a conference committee will have to work out the differences in how septic users would be charged.

The House plan would charge septic users 8 cents a gallon when the septic systems are pumped.

The Senate plan would treat septic users the same as public sewer customers.

When Gov. Robert Ehrlich first proposed the legislation it did not include septic users.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, and Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, both voted to exempt sewer customers on Wednesday.

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, voted against the amendment but said afterward he made a mistake.

Hafer said he tried unsuccessfully to get the committee to exempt Garrett County sewer customers whose waste water goes into the Mississippi River basin because they are on the west side of the Continental Divide.

"We are going to try to work it out in conference," said Ehrlich, who reiterated after Wednesday's preliminary vote in the Senate that he opposes charging septic owners the same fee as homes with sewer lines.

Instead, he is calling for a study on the issue, saying administrators don't yet know how much a fee should be or how to impose it on the state's 420,000 septic tank owners.

His aides have declined to say whether the Republican governor would veto a bill calling for a septic fee.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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