The term is a catchy -- but factually incorrect -- slogan used by opponents of pollution control fees, many of them deniers of a real and growing problem. The intent of the rhetoric is to confuse discussion of suburban and urban runoff pollution, the only major source of pollution that is growing in the Chesapeake Bay.
The pollution control fees required by a 2012 state law are not, in fact, taxes on rain. They are fees on parking lots, roofs, driveways, and other hardened surfaces in developed areas. The amounts are set by local governments, which often base them on how many square feet of pavement and roofing a property has, or on a standard rate per property (not on how much rain falls in a given year). When water flushes across these surfaces, it picks up oil, trash, pesticides, pet waste, toxic metals and other pollutants. The noxious, fast-moving mixture erodes stream banks, and can kill fish, flood homes, and pose health risks to people who swim or wade. Polluted runoff seriously damages the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries.
Local governments are responsible for reducing this pollution by building ponds, modified ditches, and roadside gardens with plants that act as filters. These projects create local jobs for construction workers and engineers. But the projects cost money for local governments, which is why fees are needed.
To date, at least five bills have been introduced to delay, weaken, or create exemptions for Maryland’s 2012 stormwater law, which requires the state’s nine largest counties and Baltimore to impose the pollution control fees.
State Del. Kathy Szeliga, the House Minority Whip who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford Counties, argues the law should be overturned.
“When this tax –- and we call it the ‘rain tax’ –- was passed two years ago, 10 of the counties were picked on, and the remainder were not charged any tax,” Szeliga said. “And, so what does that look like today? I’ll tell you what it looks like. A car dealership in Howard County literally has a forty thousand dollar a year rain tax bill, and is competing against car dealers in other counties that don’t have a rain tax bill.”
To clarify a factual issue here: At Howard County’s rate of $15 per 500 square feet for businesses, it would take a car dealership with 23 football fields of blacktop and roofs to have an annual fee the size Del. Szeliga describes. An average fee is more like about $8,000 a year for a car dealership in Howard County, according to the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association.
Moreover, car dealers (and anyone else) can cut these fees in half, according to Howard County, by taking steps to reduce polluted runoff such as planting trees and gardens around their lots -– which also make the surrounding areas look nicer. Owners of houses on small lots in the county pay less than $4 per month, and can also take steps to have that amount reduced.
For more facts about the pollution control fees in counties across Maryland, click here.
So what about the issue Del. Szeliga raised about the lack of equity between counties?
State Del. Tom Hucker from Montgomery County, a sponsor of the 2012 law, said it makes sense that the law requires the fees for only the state’s most urbanized jurisdictions. These are the ones that have the most blacktop and buildings that are causing the growing suburban and urban runoff problem, Hucker said.
Also, it is only these 10 large jurisdictions -– not more rural counties -– that are required by the federal Clean Water Act to have state stormwater control permits (called a Phase 1 MS4 permits), approved by the EPA, that mandate local actions to reduce local runoff pollution, Hucker said.
”They have that permit. It’s a federal requirement: they have to clean up their stormwater,” Hucker said. “So I think all of this energy ought to be directed at getting some stormwater abated and some jobs created rather than just all this political rhetoric in an election year.”
State Del. Stephen Lafferty of Baltimore County, also one of the sponsors of the 2012 stormwater law, said controlling urban and suburban runoff pollution is a missing piece of the puzzle to a restored Chesapeake Bay.
“Polluted runoff is one of the largest growing segments of pollution that affects the Bay,” Lafferty said. “The agricultural community has taken on its responsibility in a very strong way. Certainly we have taken steps to reduce pollution from septic systems. And we’ve invested terrifically in wastewater treatment facilities. But the fourth sector, urban runoff, has yet to be really tackled.”
Lafferty said that repealing or weakening the 2012 law would make it difficult for Maryland to meet EPA’s science-based pollution limits for the Bay and a regional cleanup plan called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
Dr. Donald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that repealing the 2012 law would be a step backward for the Bay restoration effort. “Of all the sources of Bay pollution, runoff from developed land is the one that’s going up,” Dr. Boesch said. “It’s going in the wrong direction. So we have to do something to turn that around. Just like we have to pay for treatment of our other wastes, we have to pay for treatment of the wastes in runoff.”
We all contribute to polluted runoff. Keeping Maryland’s 2012 runoff pollution control law in place will make sure funding is available to improve the health of our local streams and our local economies.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation