By Daniel Menefee

Environment Secretary Robert Summers

Environment Secretary Robert Summers

Environment Secretary Robert Summers told Eastern Shore lawmakers the Bay Restoration Fund needs an additional $385 million to upgrade 67 sewage treatment plants in Maryland and echoed Gov. Martin O’Malley’s call to double the flush tax to $60 a year.

Del. Michael Smigiel, R-Caroline, challenged Summers on the fairness of the tax to rural Marylanders.

“It seems there’s a disproportionate amount of requirements being placed on the rural counties, as opposed to areas like Baltimore City that have spilled 100 million gallons of raw sewage into the Bay,” Smigiel told Summers at a meeting of Eastern Shore lawmakers Friday morning. “And your agency seems to refer to these spills as an insignificant event.”

“I certainly never said sewage spills were an insignificant problem,” Summers replied. “They are a very significant problem, and it is something we are putting a lot of effort into.”

Summers said residents in counties on the Western Shore and Baltimore City pay significantly higher water and sewer fees than rural areas.

“Their fees have been going up 10% a year for the last several years.”

He also said the amount of spillage in Baltimore City is minor compared to the 700 million gallons of treated water discharged daily into the Bay. Septic discharge accounts for 6% of all nutrient pollution in the Bay and the percentage is greater in areas with more septic systems.

The Eastern Shore, southern Maryland, and areas along the Patuxent and Severn rivers are areas of high septic discharge.

However, Summers said even properly functioning septic systems dump a significant amount of untreated wastewater into the Bay. “It’s completely untreated.”

After the meeting, Summers explained the amount of sewage spills from treatment plants is less than .01% of the total treated wastewater volume.

Bay Restoration Fund means progress

“The Bay Restoration Fund has been very successful,” Summers said. “We have led the nation in upgrading wastewater treatment plants to the best technology.”

Summers said 23 facilities have been fully upgraded, 20 are being built, 10 have detailed architectural drawings and 10 more are being planned.

A total of $42 million from the fund has paid for septic upgrades, mostly in critical areas, and another $37 million has gone to the cover-crop program, which pays farmers to plant certain grains and grasses that reduce nutrient runoff.

“Cover crops are the most effective way to get nitrogen out of our ground water,” Summers said.  “Maryland farmers have really stepped up.” He said farmers have signed up at a record pace to participate.