As of the first of the year, onsite wastewater systems in Maryland will be required to utilize the Best Available Technology (BAT) for removing nitrogen.
The new Maryland Department of the Environment regulations require BAT for all new and replacement septic systems in virtually the entire state. The Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association voiced concern about the changes, according to Treasurer Kevin Koepenick, mainly because it includes no exceptions. “There are too many situations where BAT isn’t necessarily effective,” he says.
The stringent requirements are part of the state’s response to the regional Chesapeake Bay restoration program. The partnership, formed in 1983, includes the U.S. EPA, the District of Columbia and six states: Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
Koepenick, who works at the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability, says the state’s organization of environmental directors also submitted comments on the law seeking language to allow variances. “There was acknowledgment from MDE that consideration for variances was probably warranted,” he says. “I believe in the next few months, the health directors will meet with MDE to talk about it.”
He has received some draft language and expects MDE to propose some changes to the regulations this spring to update the rest of the septic regulations and hopefully allow for a variance in certain situations. Examples that might warrant a variance would be camps and other seasonal operations, and small businesses with low flows. “Some businesses may need a septic system but only have flows of 50 gallons per day,” he says. “The question is will a BAT system even work, because they’re not designed for such low flows or flows that are only seasonal.”
Recordkeeping and maintenance
Under the rules, every new onsite system must be covered by a five-year operating and maintenance contract and be inspected and maintained annually. Koepenick says everyone is on board with those requirements. “If you’re going to put these in, you can’t walk away. Unless you’re maintaining these, you can’t reasonably assume the systems are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
Another possible improvement in the regulation deals with service providers keeping records and notifying the system manufacturer, the local approving agency, and MDE anytime service is done on a system. The property owner must also maintain a service contract for the life of the system. “We’re hopeful that MDE comes through with their promise to develop a Web-based tracking system,” he says. “That’s been done successfully in other states.”
Koepenick says certification of operators and installers has been MOWPA’s main focus since the law passed. A person certified by MDE and the manufacturer must be on site during the entire installation process, and installers must also be licensed or certified by the local approving authority, such as the county.
MDE is certifying septic systems that meet the requirements of NSF 245 certification or equivalent, and demonstrate removal of at least 50 percent nitrogen. Approval is done through a Best Available Technology Review committee and “entails stringent criteria for entry and verification of nitrogen reductions,” according to guidance published by MDE.
The agency’s website lists the following systems as having passed field verification tests of nitrogen removal:
Others are still going through field verifications.
A funding mechanism is also in place to pay up to 100 percent of the cost difference between a BAT system and a traditional system. According to its website, MDE has upgraded more than 3,000 septic systems to BAT through the grant program.
Koepenick points out that onsite systems are not alone in facing stricter regulations. “When you look at the entire breadth of what needs to be done to improve water quality, no sector is being left out,” he says. “They’re all going to have to pull their weight.”
According to a December 2012 legislative report on nitrogen sources, septic systems are the second smallest contributor (about 2.5 million pounds), behind only nitrogen from the air (less than 1 million pounds per year). Agriculture contributes the most (20 million pounds), followed by wastewater (nearly 15 million pounds), stormwater (almost 10 million pounds), and forests (5 million pounds).
The legislative report cites several milestones achieved from 2009 to 2011 to reduce nitrogen from all of those sources:
- Planted a record number of cover crops (429,818 acres), meeting about 123 percent of its cover crop goal for the period.
- Upgraded 25 of the largest wastewater treatment plants, meeting 165 percent of the wastewater nitrogen reduction goal for the period.
- Met 88 percent of its stormwater goals for the period by establishing more rigorous requirements for new development and improving existing stormwater controls.
- Planted 895 acres of forest buffers to naturally remove nutrients and sediment, meeting 166 percent of its goals for the period.
Federal funding is supplemented in Maryland by a flush tax that began in 2005. The $30 annual fee for sewer users doubled to $60 last year, which is what septic users have been paying. The state has also instituted a new stormwater fee with local communities setting their rates later this year. The state gas tax and rental car tax also help fund the program. The state raises an estimated $50 million a year through the various sources. Congress has provided about the same amount in recent years, and various federal agencies provide grant support, as well.
The state goal is to upgrade about 46,000 additional septic systems to BAT by 2017, while other steps continue to target reduction from other sources. The legislative report notes that while nitrogen from other sources is dropping, the contribution from septic systems continues to increase due to growth.
To help reverse the trend, the state has also restricted the use of septic systems for new residential construction. That is expected to reduce the number of new onsite wastewater systems by 50 percent in Maryland.
“It’s ever-evolving,” says Koepenick of the state’s continued efforts to clean up the Bay and meet its obligations under the regional agreement. “It seems there’s something new every week, a new twist.”