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Lawmakers work with Washington County and state officials to cut pollution plan costs

February 10, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU | kaustuv.basu@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Washington County’s share of a statewide plan to reduce nutrient and sediment discharges to the Chesapeake Bay is estimated to cost the county $1.1 billion through 2025.

That number was greeted with ridicule and disbelief when it was mentioned last year.

The Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly is working with state and local officials to better understand the situation, and, if possible, mitigate some of the costs.

Robert Summers, secretary of the Maryland Department of Environment, met with local legislators and county officials Wednesday in Annapolis.

“We are figuring out what the best way going forward is for our constituents,” said Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington. “The true cost of this is still being worked out.”

Serafini likens the effort to better understand the state plan to the Affordable Health Care Act and how states are grappling to understand what the costs of the health care plan might be.

Legislators have some options, he said.

“We can say we can reform or fine-tune the law,” Serafini said. If that happens at all, he said, it likely will take several Maryland General Assembly sessions.

The other option, he said, is to “work with the plan as it is implemented.”

The nutrient and sediment reduction targets have been set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, requiring individual states and the District of Columbia that drain into the Chesapeake to come up with a plan on how to achieve the target.

States also have to account for discharges because of future development and have a plan to minimize pollutant loads. Another issue at stake is a state law that passed last year restricting development in rural areas.


The plan in Washington County

Julie Pippel, director of the Washington County Division of Environmental Management, said the $1.1 billion cost that had been estimated was a starting number.

“That’s just a high point. Now, we are working on alternatives to bring that number down,” Pippel said.

The estimated cost for reducing nutrient discharges, including managing wastewater and stormwater and costs of upgrading some types of septic systems, add up to the initial amount.

County officials are working on a plan suggested by a group consisting of local stakeholders. That could mean working with the Maryland Department of the Environment to clarify how the “target amounts” of nutrients to be reduced were arrived at.

An excess of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in the water lead to algae blooms that reduce the amount of oxygen in the water, thus affecting marine life.

The plan is to tackle the task in bits and pieces — by working on projects that are part of the county’s Capital Improvement Projects such as upgrades to wastewater treatments plants, Pippel said.

Educating the public on how they can reduce nutrients is another option.

“We will do what we can and what we can afford,” she said.

Washington County is participating in a statewide group that will make recommendations to Maryland agencies on policies on nutrient and sediment discharges due to future growth and development. That plan is known as the Accounting for Growth program.

One guiding principle of the program, according to a county presentation, is “to encourage developers to plan and locate their developments to minimize pollution, and will require developers to offset the remaining productions by seeking offsets elsewhere.”

A related issue is a land-use map suggested by the state that would cut possible development in the county by as much as 47 percent. That’s because of a new state law called the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act.

The county has come up with its own land-use map that would cut potential development by 24 percent, said Gregory B. Murray, the county administrator.

“What we did was a broad interpretation of the law, a map that at least showed an attempt at compliance without going overboard and restricting so much that you cannot do anything,” Murray said.

But that map hasn’t been adopted by the county yet.

“What we are going to do is wait ’til the end of the (Maryland General Assembly) session before we adopt anything,” he said.

A bill cross-filed in the Senate and the House this session is attempting to repeal the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act that passed in 2012.

Del. Michael A. McDermott, R-Wicomico/Worcester, and Sen. Edward J. Pipkin, R-Kent/Queen Anne’s/Cecil/Caroline, are the two legislators behind that bill.

According to the Frederick News-Post, Frederick County has adopted a land-use map that is thought to be problematic by state officials because it sidesteps the preservation act passed last year.


Consequences

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he believed that the state’s growth policy is dictated by the urban areas.

“They (Washington County officials) are making the best out of a bad situation,” he said. “In these times of austerity, this $1.1 billion bill seems laughable.” He added that the county was negotiating in good faith with state officials.

Serafini said elected officials sometimes make decisions without understanding their outcomes.

“You have counties and communities that simply cannot afford this (the cost of the Watershed Implementation Plan),” he said.

Charles Semler of Smithsburg, who runs a company that manufactures and distributes septic systems, said because of the new regulations, the cost of a septic system has increased from $6,000 to $13,000.

“It could affect the number of new home permits,” Semler said. “People could just choose to build homes in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.”

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