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February 7, 2012

Contradictory Evidence on Bay Pollution

Shawn Burns

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley regularly says that septic systems are “one of the biggest causes of pollution in the bay.”


Is that statement true?


Not according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).


The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has a page on its website dedicated to information regarding nitrogen and phosphorus, which are the most serious sources of nutrient pollution in the bay.


Excess levels of nitrogen, in particular, have been a longstanding problem in the bay. The nitrogen causes excessive algae production in the water that drastically reduces the levels of oxygen in the water, making it difficult – if not impossible – for many aquatic species to thrive and survive. The algae produced from the excessive nitrogen deposits in the bay also blocks sunlight from reaching the naturally occurring plant life vital to the bay’s health.


According to the information from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s website (, “The majority of nitrogen pollution comes from sewage treatment plants, large-scale animal operations, agriculture and air pollution…”


Residential septic systems aren’t on this list.


Seems like our governor needs to check his facts regarding septic systems.


Also from the website is a breakdown of major sources of nitrogen pollution in the bay.


Septic systems account for four percent of pollution in the bay, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, yet Governor O’Malley suggests that banning septic systems will solve all of the bay’s pollution problems.


However, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation:


“The number one source of nitrogen pollution to the Bay comes from agricultural runoff, which contributes 40 percent of the nitrogen and 50 percent of the phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay.”


And still Governor O’Malley is trying to paint septic systems as the ruin of the bay.


Here is one of the more interesting pieces of information from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation:


“CBF continues to advocate for conservation programs to establish on-the-ground projects that limit polluting runoff: stream buffers, cover crops, rotational grazing, and other “best management practices.


“These agricultural measures are the most cost-effective way to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to the bay. In fact, scientists estimate that we could achieve almost two-thirds of the nitrogen and phosphorus reductions necessary to restore the Chesapeake Bay, at only 13 percent of the total cost of Bay restoration, by implementing them.”


And Governor O’Malley still insists septic systems are the problem.


Without a doubt, the most efficient, up-to-date technology should be used for new septic systems and for upgrading existing systems, but – as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has pointed out – targeting agricultural programs could drastically reduce nitrogen runoff and achieve the reductions in the most cost-effective way available.


At least 10 Maryland counties have from 50 to 80 percent of their homes on septic systems, including many on the Eastern Shore.


Septic systems clearly contribute pollution into the bay, and any effort to make septic systems more efficient and to reduce pollution should be pursued.


The problem is with the messenger and the message itself.


Governor O’Malley’s push to ban septic systems has less to do with the realities of bay pollution and more to do with his national political ambitions.


Going after septic systems is easier and will produce quicker political points than the slow process of agricultural programs designed to rebuild and restore natural buffers and filters as suggested by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.


Governor O’Malley needs to come clean on his motives for his ban on septic systems because – at this point – his rhetoric doesn’t pass the smell test.


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