Septic vs. sewer: choosing for rural communities

By P. Ryan Anthony, Special To Dorchester Banner
Posted 1/11/23

The Maryland Association of Counties’ winter conference at the Hyatt in Cambridge last week offered seminars on such interesting topics as cybersecurity, mental health in prisons, cannabis …

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Septic vs. sewer: choosing for rural communities

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The Maryland Association of Counties’ winter conference at the Hyatt in Cambridge last week offered seminars on such interesting topics as cybersecurity, mental health in prisons, cannabis implementation, and even magnetic levitation systems. So, the session titled “The Politics of Flushing?” might not have seemed to be anyone’s first choice. But, as it turned out, the information presented there was quite important, especially for the Eastern Shore.

Hosted by MACo’s Environmental Health Officers Affiliate and moderated by state Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, the seminar explored the basics of septic systems, the regulatory structure that protects the environment and public health, and the evolving political debate over wastewater treatment.

“This issue is very important to my constituents,” Carozza said, before introducing the first speaker. “We have a lot of challenges in this area.”

Dr. Andrew Lazur, a state water quality specialist at UMD Extension, proceeded to focus on septic systems, saying that there will be more of them as more people develop land in rural areas. He emphasized that these systems are so important because wastewater “is a source of bacteria and other types of contaminants we flush down every day in the different products we use, and some of these contaminants are an emerging concern.”

There are special regulations for the construction of septic systems on the Eastern Shore, said Lazur, including where they are built. For example, not all soils are appropriate for septic systems.

“Soil plays such a key role in all wastewater treatments,” he said.

Lazur also offered some tips for maintaining a septic system once it’s in operation. These included avoiding garbage disposals, maintaining grease traps, flushing only toilet paper (not wipes, etc.), keeping vehicle traffic off drain fields, and avoiding the planting of trees near the tank or drain field.

The next speaker, Calvert County Environmental Health Director Matthew Cumers, discussed regulations that cover septic systems. These regulations are created by the Maryland Department of the Environment after a period when interested parties can review and comment on the proposals published in the Maryland Register.

MDE turns authority for enforcement of the new regulations over to the approving authority, a local health department or local government, which then designates a health officer or an environmental health director such as Cumers.

These approving authorities have direct relationships with applicants, contractors and design consultants. They perform site evaluations, approve permits, review plans and more related to septic systems. The regulation enforcement, which the approving authority coordinates with MDE and the Office of the Attorney General, is necessary for the protection of human health and the environment.

Cumers then discussed the challenges of his job. For example, most local environmental health programs are underfunded. Salaries for environmental health classifications in the state system are low compared with the private sector, and so recruitment and retention are serious problems. Additionally, Cumers and his colleagues have been trying to overcome the misconception that environmental health is adversarial to businesses and homeowners by working with property owners and contractors to find economical solutions that protect public health and the environment as well as long-term property value.

“It’s a difficult job,” Cumers said.

Les Knapp Jr., a senior local advisor to MDE, began his presentation by announcing he wanted to “challenge the longstanding paradigm that’s always existed between sewer systems and septics.”

“Traditionally,” he went on, “you think of septic systems, that’s your rural development method, and that’s what rural counties have, and then sewer systems are limited to your urban municipalities or the urban sections of your counties. And I think that paradigm is starting to break down, and a big driver of that, particularly on the Eastern Shore, is climate change.”

Knapp elaborated by explaining that climate change, sea-level rise and rising water tables are limiting the ability to place new septic systems, and that some existing systems are failing with no ability to replace them due to concerns of costly pump and haul from storage tanks or a connection to public sewers. Thus, public sewer systems will become more important and necessary, even in rural counties like Dorchester.

Because of this, Knapp suggests that every county include new or planned sewer service areas in its comprehensive plan. If necessary, the county government can coordinate with the Maryland Department of Planning to amend the existing plan.

“We are very sensitive to the challenges that we’re all facing,” said Sen. Carozza as she closed out the lecture portion, “especially when we’re talking about scenarios where it may not make sense to have septics, and having the counties possibly looking into the sewer systems here.”

The seminar ended with a Q&A session, in which the audience pressed the speakers on such subjects as employee salaries, regulation changes and economic impact.

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