Flush Tax: Seize This Opportunity for Real Progress
A new Environmental Protection Agency report on the condition of coastal waters had this depressing bit of news: Just two of Americas water regions were downgraded from fair to poor in the last three years: the Northeast and Puerto Rico.
Since the Chesapeake Bay made up 60 percent of the Northeast study area, Marylanders ought to be fighting mad about our Chesapeakes condition.
Part of the problem is that government agencies refuse to enforce Clean Water laws in this new era of voluntary compliance. Another problem is that with so much of our federal budget earmarked for war-making and tax cuts for the wealthy, theres no chance soon that the Bay can look forward to the billions in funding already designated for the Florida Everglades and other high-priority projects.
Thats where Gov. Robert Ehrlichs bright idea nicknamed the flush tax comes in. It proposes to create a pot of money to pay for the most fixable problem, Bay-choking nitrogen pollution. So far, we have been heartened by the General Assemblys willingness to advance the governors plan.
To sum up: The plan adds a $2.50 surcharge to the monthly sewer bills of Marylanders hooked up to sewage treatment plants. It aims to raise $66 million a year for upgrades to the big 66 sewage treatment plants, where an estimated $1 billion in repairs are needed.
The merits of changes to the bill made last week in the House Environmental Matters Committee dont sell themselves to us so neatly.
Admittedly, those changes are made with good intention. That committee amended Ehrlichs bill to spread the cleanup charges to more than 400,000 Maryland families and businesses with septic systems, some 50,000 in Anne Arundel County.
The new provision charges septic tank owners eight cents per gallon of waste pumped from their tanks.
The prospect of turning sewage disposal services into tax collectors strikes us as a tad bizarre. And so does a system that might encourage less pumping and therefore more seeping pollution in order to avoid the tax.
But were most concerned that the problem is way bigger than this solution. For the best- and worst-working septics systems, pumping is an extraordinary event. The best systems filter wastes through neat percolation systems and complex drain fields, dissipating the problem before it reaches ground or surface waters. Not much need to pump there.
The worst systems and theyre everywhere in the old water-hugging communities of the Bay are mysteries to everybody, including the county departments of health and planning supposed to regulate them. Pump them? Youve got to find them first. Were not kidding.
Seems to us the House solution only scrapes the surface of a huge problem. Look below the surface, and you find that solutions are as elusive as good old septic systems.
Scientists tell us they have the technology to drip and draw nearly all the nitrogen out of sewage in water purification plants. Chesapeake Country isnt nearly so far along in providing innovative technologies to its septic-served homes and communities so they can share in saving the Bay.
Asked how the homes in one old, waterside community might clean up their dirty ways, one Anne Arundel County planner suggested bulldozing the neighborhood.
Wed like to see the flush tax bring some better thinking to Chesapeake Country in the way of new technologies and help from counties for people willing to spend for upgrading but not abandon their homes.
One more thing we dont understand as the flush tax works through the General Assembly is why the new legislation was changed to reduce by nearly 35 percent (from $150,000 to $105,000) the maximum annual flush tax on big industries. Sounds like the folks who could afford the expensive lobbyists got their way.
And did we really need to relax some of the regulatory burdens on farmers to curry their support for this bill, as one of the changes did?
Theres time left in the Senate to craft this vital piece of legislation into a plan that makes all our toilets safe for the Bay.
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