Homeowners would bear brunt of septic costs

Cost for upgrade to meet federal standards could hit $230 million

May 26, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Helping the Bay
Helping the Bay

The estimated cost in Washington County to achieve the federal government’s targeted reduction of nitrogen going to Chesapeake Bay via septic systems in Washington County is $230.2 million, an amount that primarily homeowners would be responsible for paying, said Julie Pippel, director for the county’s Division of Environmental Management.

Homeowners who rely on septic systems could face costs up to $67,390 to comply with the plan by connecting to a public sewer system.

There are up to three possible options for septic system owners to comply with efforts to reduce nitrogen discharge, two of which homeowners could pursue voluntarily now, but mandatory measures are coming, said David Barnhart, director of environmental health for the Washington County Health Department.

Under health department policy changes that go into effect July 1, 2013, when certain septic systems need repair or a new one is installed, other improvements will have to be made to reduce the septic system’s nitrogen discharge, Barnhart said.

To comply with the federal Clean Water Act and lawsuits brought by environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to get states to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous making its way to the bay. Too much nitrogen and phosphorous in the bay causes algae blooms, which can cut off sunlight to the water and, when they decompose, use up the water’s oxygen supply, Pippel said. That suffocates aquatic life such as crabs and oysters.

The three areas being targeted for nutrient reduction are wastewater, stormwater and septic systems.

The issue with septic systems focuses on nitrogen discharge because, with properly working septic systems, the phosphorous is not a problem because it attaches to the soil around the septic system and doesn’t reach groundwater, Pippel said.

There are approximately 20,000 on-site sewage disposal systems in Washington County, Barnhart said. Those include septic tanks and cesspools, but not sewage treatment plants, he said.

Effective July 2013, the health department — under new Maryland Department of the Environment regulations — will require that any repairs to a septic system on a lot that is one acre or smaller include installing improvements that will reduce nitrogen discharges, Barnhart said.

The health department, also effective July 1, 2013, will require all new septic systems and all repairs on septic systems in sensitive areas to make such improvements, Barnhart said.

Basically, a sensitive area is within 1,000 feet of a perennial stream — which has water year-round — or a larger running body of water such as a creek or river, Barnhart said.

State officials are considering making the upgrades to septic systems mandatory for new construction as well, Barnhart said.

The required improvements, which include adding an aeration system that will require electrical service, can cost an estimated $19,740 over a 20-year period, according to a presentation document for the May 22 meeting of the Washington County Commissioners. That includes $10,900 just for the upfront tank cost, Pippel said. Other costs include electricity, pumping the tank and a maintenance contract.

Pippel said the $230.2 million cost for reducing nitrogen countywide in septic systems was reached by estimating the cost of upgrading those septic systems.

Homeowners with failing septic systems and who meet income eligibility criteria can apply for a Maryland Department of the Environment grant to help pay for the improvements, Barnhart said.

The example shown in the presentation document provides for a $10,900 grant, so the cost to the homeowner is $8,840. Barnhart said that grant amount is typical for this situation.

From Feb. 18, 2009, to June 24, 2011, a total of 71 septic systems in the county received grant-assisted upgrades with the aeration improvements, according to the presentation document. Based on current Bay Restoration Fund funding levels, about 20 grant-assisted septic systems in the county can be upgraded each year.

On May 22, Pippel presented the Washington County Commissioners with three options the county could take to reduce the amount of nitrogen discharge making its way from septic tanks into the watershed.

Those options included connecting those homes to public sewer, creating a countywide plan to have septic tanks pumped every three years and upgrading septic systems with the aeration equipment.

Pippel said county officials will study those options.

Septic system owners already get their tanks pumped every three years, a move the health department has recommended for years and that many septic tank owners already do, Barnhart said.

Each pumping costs about $275 to $300, Barnhart said.

When comparing the three options over a 20-year period, the estimated costs are $1,800 for pumping every three years; $19,740 to upgrade a septic system; and $67,390 to connect to a public sewer system, according to the presentation document.

Connecting to a public sewer system might not be an option for some homeowners, Barnhart said.

An estimated 2,151 on-site sewage disposal systems in the county were identified as potentially being able to connect to a public sewer system, according to the presentation document. Those sewage disposal systems are in the areas of Smithsburg, Cedar Lawn, Clover Heights, Rocky Springs, Saint James, Spring Valley, Jefferson Boulevard, and Hunter Hill Apartments and nearby single-family homes, according to the document.

Even in those areas, there are no public sewer lines to which they could connect, so the government body in charge of the closest sewer system would need to invest in expanding its lines and adding pumping stations, Barnhart said.

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