Rules and Regs: Maryland Contractors Say Septic Requirements Cause Drop in New Building

In this month's regulations update, court rulings still cause confusion over the EPA's new Clean Water rules, and Maryland home builders say well-intentioned rules for nitrogen removal are hurting new construction
Rules and Regs: Maryland Contractors Say Septic Requirements Cause Drop in New Building

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Some Maryland home builders say well-intentioned laws, such as septic system requirements, are pricing some potential homeowners out of the market. Since 2013, the state has required the best available technology for nitrogen removal from onsite wastewater systems in the Chesapeake Bay or Atlantic Coastal Bay watersheds. That can add $10,000 or more to the cost of a new home, plus up to $600 in annual inspection and maintenance costs. Code changes in 2012 increased the cost of some building materials, adding another $5,000 to the cost of a new home. And as of July 1, the state now requires sprinkler systems in all one- and two-family homes, which can cost from $5,000 to $25,000. Sprinklers in homes served by wells are significantly more expensive than those on municipal water. Caroline County, where per capita income is 30 percent below the state average, is one area that has seen a drop in home building. One subdivision developer there says he has stopped selling lots because he can’t make any money building the modest starter homes that sell for around $160,000.

Ohio EPA providing financial assistance for onsite system replacement
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has released up to $5 million for low-income homeowners to repair and replace failing onsite wastewater treatment systems. The Water Pollution Control Loan Fund provides the principal-forgiveness loans through local health districts, with each district eligible for a maximum of $300,000 in 2016. Local districts must nominate projects, which are then selected based on state EPA criteria. The program has been revived after being phased out two years ago. Another $18.5 million is available to communities to correct combined sewer overflows or to provide sanitary sewer for unserved areas.

Confusion and opposition muddy EPA’s new Clean Water Act rules
The EPA’s new Clean Water Act rules were blocked on Aug. 27 by a federal judge in North Dakota. The EPA says the temporary injunction from U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson applies only to North Dakota and 12 other states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming). The EPA says it will continue to enforce the rule, which became effective Aug. 28, in the rest of the country. The North Dakota case is one of 10 cases pending across the country affecting a total of 29 states.

Designed to clear up confusion brought on by various court rulings on challenges to the 1972 Clean Water Act that put into doubt what waters were under jurisdiction of the law, the revisions seemed to increase the uncertainty. Opponents of the rule, on their “Ditch the Rule” website, call it a federal land grab that would “immensely” expand the EPA’s jurisdiction and cover puddles, ponds, ditches, dry streams, groundwater and isolated wetlands. In response, the EPA started its own “Ditch the Myth” website saying the rule reduces the scope of waters under its jurisdiction, “does not protect any waters that have not historically been covered under the Clean Water Act” and “protects fewer waters” than before.

The judge ruled that the EPA has exceeded its authority in its update to the Clean Water Act, which has been opposed by agricultural, business, energy, housing development and other groups. Judge Erickson said the rule appears to be too broad in some cases, saying the EPA actions were “inexplicable, arbitrary and devoid of a reasoned process.” A federal judge in West Virginia declined to block the rule on Aug. 26.

Mobile home park in Alabama cited for septic violations and evacuated
A circuit court judge in Alabama has issued a final ruling that requires any remaining structures in a mobile home park and marina to be removed. Septic tank failures and graywater discharge problems resulted in a notice of violation to the property owner, Alabama Power Company, which leased the 37 acres to Lake Martin’s Pleasure Point Park and Marina. The company was cited in 2013 for 19 violations including unpermitted and illegal septic systems and graywater discharges from the mobile homes, resulting in cancellation of the lease. Residents had reported problems to the operator of the mobile home park but say she did nothing to remedy the situation. About 80 families had to relocate their mobile homes. While most were vacation homes, some residents lived there permanently. Moving the homes costs around $6,000 each, along with the need to find other property on which to locate them. Alabama Power says it could cost up to $1 million to remove all illegal systems and clean up the property. Fewer than 30 structures remained on the land at the time of the final court ruling.

A decade of violations means big fines for Arkansas subdivision operator
A lawsuit filed against the operator of a large decentralized onsite wastewater system alleges a decade of violations and overflows. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality filed the suit on Aug. 14 against Property Owners Improvement District Number 5, which provides onsite wastewater treatment for more than 400 homes in a subdivision near Farmington, Arkansas. ADEQ seeks $420,000 in penalties and proof that the operator can run the system properly.

Inspections in 2015 found overflows from an aeration pond and manhole, along with solid waste on the ground and in a tributary of the Illinois River more than a mile away. An emergency order issued in spring 2015 required the district to stop the discharges and to make repairs. The department says similar incidents occurred in 2007, 2008, and yearly since 2012. The improvement district was fined $2,150 in 2014. According to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette newspaper, the operator claims the system is oversized, built for three times the number of homes it serves, so the wastewater levels don’t get high enough to move waste to the next stages of treatment.

Wisconsin Amish now exempt from plumbing codes
Amish families in Wisconsin will now be able to get a waiver from state plumbing, electrical and building codes that violate their religious beliefs. The exemption was included in this year’s state budget and is available to members of all established religious sects. The state has about 17,000 Amish, ranking it fourth in the nation and some have been fined or evicted for violating codes. Under the waivers, the Amish will not have to install smoke or carbon monoxide detectors or follow electrical or plumbing codes of the state or local community that violate their religion. David Mortimor of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom says the law could be a model for other states.

Nitrogen reduction efforts in Chesapeake Bay area behind schedule
Efforts to reduce nitrogen from septic tank effluent in the Chesapeake Bay area are running behind schedule. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports that reduction efforts are more than 10 percent behind schedule for the 2017 goals. Septic systems contribute just 3 percent of the nitrogen in Delaware’s watershed, and 7 percent in Maryland. The two states require the use of the best available technology for new or replaced systems near the bay. That covers about 1,500 lots in Delaware and 52,000 in Maryland.


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