Lengthy delays. Staffing shortages. Byzantine regulations.

These are trying times for Maryland’s well and septic permitting program. State officials can’t even quantify the overall extent of the permitting delays because the system lacks a centralized database.

Andrew Karolick stands beside lids to the holding tanks at his vacation home near Crisfield, MD. He and his family use paper plates and avoid doing laundry to keep the tanks from filling too quickly. Credit: Jeremy Cox

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, though, characterized the delays in many places as “significant” and said that many jurisdictions are struggling to simply manage communications and customer service.

About one-third of counties are experiencing “some systemic challenges” with their well and septic permitting programs, Jay Apperson said in a statement.

Nowhere has been as troubled as Wicomico County. The county is home to Salisbury, Maryland’s most populous city on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

There, MDE contracted with Maryland Environmental Service “circuit riders” last November to help work through the backlog of 56 septic permits and 94 land evaluations. (As of mid-March, the septic permits had been cleared, but land evaluations were still in arrears, Apperson said.)

The circuit riders are being made available to other counties as well.

Interest groups as varied as the Maryland Association of Counties, the Maryland Building Industry Association and Clean Water Action have called on the state to address the problem. But no comprehensive fix appears to be coming soon.

The program’s troubles come as the state faces growing pressure to reduce nutrient pollution from septic tanks as part of the multistate and federal Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort. That backdrop also includes climate change, which is raising groundwater levels and supercharging rainstorms, leading to more septic failures.

At his vacation house just outside Crisfield, a low-lying community on the Bay’s eastern flank, Andrew Karolick has struggled to get a firm response from state and local officials about the fate of his wastewater. The septic system failed just as he was purchasing the home two years ago.

With no room on his waterfront to install a new drain field, Karolick has been forced to use in-ground holding tanks, which must be pumped out every few months at a cost of about $550 each time.

He would like his neighborhood to be connected to a sewer system line that terminates barely a quarter of a mile away.

The septic systems at “a lot of houses are hitting the end of their life cycle and there is not an alternative solution,” Karolick said. “It’s a growing issue. There needs to be planning now.”

Such quandaries are becoming endemic, representatives of the Maryland Association of County Health Officers (MACHO) and the Conference of Local Environmental Health Directors told the Bay Journal in a joint statement.

“Maryland is contending with the effects of sea level rise and more dramatic swings in groundwater levels because of climate change, presenting new challenges that we haven’t faced before, especially on the Shore and in the Coastal Plain regions,” said Bob Stephens, MACHO’s president and Garrett County’s health officer. “This is a complex issue that will require new solutions at both the local and state levels.”

Statewide, local environmental health staffs are experiencing a more than 40% vacancy rate. More staffing would help alleviate the backlogs and quality-control issues, the health groups said.

What is needed, the trade groups assert, is better pay that more closely aligns with compensation in the private sector. The starting salary of $35,000 is about half the amount offered by private employers, said Sarah Sample, associate policy director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

“We’re really getting to a place where the urgency is at a critical level,” she said at a legislative committee hearing in Annapolis.

Stephens said in the statement to Bay Journal that he wants to see a pipeline of college graduates forged by collaborations with colleges and universities. Professionals could assist with apprenticeship programs and curriculum development.

MDE also needs staffing help, Stephens said. He hopes that would lead to clearer marching orders being handed down to local enforcement officials.

“It is important that home and business owners are getting consistent advice, regardless of the county in which they are located,” Stephens said.

Another complication stems from the administrative structure, he said. State laws governing septic installations fall under MDE’s authority, but the agency delegates that responsibility to local health departments. The public often gets confused because staff based in the counties they serve can be a mix of state and county employees. And MDE often steps in to “co-review” complex projects, such as larger systems and holding tanks.

When conflicts arise, each agency points fingers at the other, state Sen. Katie Fry Hester, a Democrat representing Howard and Montgomery counties, told her colleagues during a February hearing. “That’s not a good way to run government,” she said.

The hearing was about her bill, SB830, which sought to fix some of the problems. The original version required standardized permit forms, the creation of an online permit tracking system and the initiation of a student loan repayment program for environmental health specialists.

The language that reached the Senate floor in March, though, left only a pair of studies: one to examine staffing needs and the other to explore shifting permitting authority to the state health department. As of mid-March, the bill had received unanimous support in the Senate and had moved on to the House of Delegates.

In the meantime, Apperson said that MDE and the state health department have contacted local jurisdictions as well as the state Board of Environmental Health Specialists to propose longer-term solutions and collect feedback.

This article was originally published on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Maryland.

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