DENTON — New state efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay would have an enormous negative impact on rural Maryland counties’ economy and way of life, while not even addressing the root of the bay’s pollution problem, said the Clean Chesapeake Coalition at an informational meeting Thursday, Nov. 21 in Denton.
Sponsored by the Caroline County Chamber of Commerce, the meeting shared information about coming state regulations, and what the Clean Chesapeake Coalition is doing to try to convince the state to look at what it believes would be more fiscally responsible measures to clean up the bay.
The coalition is an association of seven rural Maryland counties – including Cecil, Caroline, Dorchester and Kent counties on the Eastern Shore – that has hired law firm Funk & Bolton to investigate the science that went into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Bay Total Maximum Daily Load program, also known as the “pollution diet,” that sets nutrient level reduction goals for all states with tributaries feeding into the Chesapeake Bay.
Under the EPA’s program, all states must develop their own plans to achieve those goals. Maryland is the only state that has also required all local jurisdictions to further develop individual Watershed Implementation Plans, or WIPs.
Charles “Chip” MacLeod, of Funk & Bolton, said the coalition agrees the bay needs to be cleaned up. It does not agree with the state’s proposed methods for doing so.
“The issue is not why we should care about the bay,” MacLeod said. “The issue is how.”
MacLeod said of all the bay states under the EPA’s program, Maryland has by far the most aggressive WIP. As it stands, it would cost taxpayers $14.4 billion to fully implement, and the state has already spent more than any other on bay restoration efforts.
However, MacLeod said, the data the EPA used to build the TMDL model is flawed, as it does not address what the coalition said is the single largest source of pollution in the bay: the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River.
McLeod said the EPA estimates the dam’s stormwater management pond is only 55 percent full, but a 2012 U.S. Geological Survey study shows the pond is actually 85 to 88 percent full. No one – not even the dam’s owner, Exelon – is required to maintain the 85-year-old dam’s pond, and it has never been dredged.
During a significant storm event, like Hurricane Agnes in 1972 or Tropical Storm Lee in Sept. 2011, tons of sediment wash down from the dam into the Chesapeake Bay, MacLeod said.
Several organizations, including the coalition, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have entered motions to intervene in Exelon’s application for a new 46-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. MacLeod said the coalition would like to see FERC require dredging of the dam’s pond to at least regain 10 years of capacity, and then regular maintenance going forward, as conditions of the relicensing.
However, Maryland’s multibillion-dollar WIP does nothing to address the problem upstream, MacLeod said. Everything it is instead spending the money on would be washed away by the overflow from the Conowingo Dam.
“We’re not saying nothing else should be done [other than dredging the dam’s pond],” MacLeod said. “But if we don’t deal with this, so much else gets wasted.”
One focus of Maryland’s WIP is septic systems, which the state wants retrofitted to expensive Best Available Technology systems or replaced altogether by hooking up users to wastewater treatment plants.
Septic systems do not contribute phosphorus or sediment, only nitrogen, MacLeod said, and for the $3.7 billion expected to be spent on septic systems statewide, it is only estimated to reduce the total nitrogen output into the bay by septic systems by 620 tons per year.
For comparison, an independent research team at Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge estimated Tropical Storm Lee washed 115,910 tons of nitrogen into the bay from the Conowingo Dam alone, MacLeod said.
Further, during an average year, septic systems contribute the least amount of nitrogen pollution to the bay, compared to pollution from stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment plants, agriculture operations and the Susquehanna River.
“It looks like we’re being told to spend the most [on septic systems] for the least benefit,” MacLeod said.
The coalition believes the septic system regulations are not so much about bay restoration as they are about controlling growth in rural counties, which typically do not have wastewater treatment plants outside of large towns.
Caroline County Department of Planning and Codes Director Katheleen Freeman said the state’s new Accounting for Growth policy would require those seeking a new building permit for a structure with a septic system to offset the pollution created by the system by either purchasing “pollution credits,” or paying a fee-in-lieu, based on the amount of nitrogen expected to be produced by the system.
While the policy is on its second draft and no numbers are final, Freeman said the proposed fees could drive up a residential building permit in Caroline County by as much as $20,000.
Freeman said the Bay TMDL model simply does not have allocations for future growth on septics.
“In a rural jurisdiction like Caroline, that doesn’t have wastewater treatment plant lines running throughout and doesn’t plan on it, it would have a major impact on growth,” Freeman said. “The cost of development under this program could increase dramatically.”
Freeman said the implementation of the Accounting for Growth program could start as early as next year.
State Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, called the program the death knell for residential and commercial development in rural counties.
“We [the local delegation] are doing whatever we can to prevent this,” Hershey said.
Jeff Ghrist, vice president of the Caroline County Commissioners, said the commissioners do not want anyone to think Caroline does not want to do its part to clean up the bay.
“The point we’re making by joining the coalition is where we’re going just doesn’t make sense, and we’re hurting people,” Ghrist said.