February 4, 2011

Crackdown on septic systems, power outages are among sparse news in governor’s speech

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s pledge to crackdown on new septic systems was about the only real news in a State of the State address that comes as an anti-climax after his inaugural address, his budget roll-out and the introduction of his legislative agenda.

The pledge drew immediate praise from environmentalists and protest from rural lawmakers.

O'Malley delivers 2011 State of the State address

Gov. Martin O'Malley delivers his 2011 State of the State address.

Also fairly fresh was the governor’s day-old promise to enforce “reliability standards for electric customers,” a reaction to the prolonged power outages in the Pepco service areas, mostly in Montgomery County because “big utilities have failed them,” O’Malley said.

Railing against big utilities has been a standard part of O’Malley’s rhetorical arsenal for five years. Raising his voice, O’Malley asked, “How long do you want to wait in the cold and dark for a deregulated market to turn the electricity back on?”

The negative impact of leaking septic systems on the Chesapeake Bay is a major concern for environmentalists, and one of the reasons the “flush tax” that supports the Bay Restoration Fund is paid by rural households with septic tanks. That’s been a sore point with rural voters since Gov. Bob Ehrlich signed it into law in 2004.

O’Malley said: “There is one area of reducing pollution where so far we have totally failed, and in fact it has gotten much worse,… and that is pollution from the proliferation of new septic systems.” The governor did not spell out any details.

But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had apparently already held discussions with the governor’s office about the plan, which would likely prevent any development of five homes or more from relying on septic systems, instead of public or private sewerage.

“This is a bold step,” said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the foundation, in a statement.  “We are pleased Governor O’Malley recognizes the potential benefits of limiting major development projects that use septic systems, an old technology. We applaud him for this major commitment towards restoring the Bay, and for his continued environmental leadership.”

Del. Michael Smigiel, a Republican who represents Cecil, Kent, Caroline and Queen Anne’s counties on the Upper Shore, said “This is a direct attack on private property right of rural landowners. This will destroy the ability of working class Marylanders to have affordable housing.”

Other rural Republicans were also surprised by the proposal and anxious to see details.

Sen. Joseph Getty of Carroll County noted that at the end of the speech, O’Malley praised farmers, but if farmers want to make changes to their properties, such as adding a new structure, they’ll need septic systems — so O’Malley’s septic proposal is a “contradiction.” Getty said the legislature recently improved septic standards, so he’s not sure what this proposal is.

O’Malley’s speech was interrupted by applause twelve times, but Getty noted there was no applause for the septic proposal.

Montgomery County delegates were pleased about the proposed reliability standards. “I’m gratified that he’s on top of the situation,” said Del. Al Carr.

“It’s a huge issue in the district” she represents, said Del. Aruna Miller of District 15. “Our constituents are very frustrated.”

Megan Poinski and Abby Rogers contributed to this story.