HARRISBURG - A proposed state rule to set tougher septic system standards for new residential development in watersheds that have protected streams is causing controversy in the Poconos.

The Department of Environmental Protection is taking public comment for 60 days on the proposal, which could have a larger impact in the Poconos than other regions of the state because it has a large number of exceptional value and high quality streams, a lot of septic systems and new development to handle population growth.

The notice published Friday in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, the online state legal journal, is designed to reduce nitrate pollution in streams with the highest water quality rating. Developers are required to prove in most cases that a project won't degrade water quality in a stream classified as exceptional value, for example.

Wayne, Pike and Monroe counties contain a large concentration of these protected streams, a result of several decades of efforts by local residents and environmentalists.

The rule outlines best management actions developers can take to locate septic systems for new development. A developer could obtain "nitrogen reduction credits" by locating a system on a larger tract of property, placing a greater buffer between the system and stream, planting a forest buffer or using technology to remove nitrates from septic systems.

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp. and Rep. Mike Peifer, R-139, Honesdale, questioned DEP Secretary Michael Krancer about this proposal at recent department budget hearings. The lawmakers said a rule designed in response to a ruling by the state Environmental Hearing Board concerning a case in Berks County is having an unintended effect in the Poconos, which lack large agricultural operations. The ruling struck down a model DEP used to predict the impact of nitrates on surface water.

Local residents are well aware of the environmental value of protected waterways to an economy dependent on tourism and recreation, Peifer said.

"We have protected our high-quality streams," he said. "They our are economic drivers - our future."

An area business leader said the rule if adopted will stifle growth in the Poconos.

"It has the potential of shutting down all sites for economic development," said Michael Sullivan, executive director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce. The steps taken to obtain the necessary credits - such as purchasing additional acreage - would cost too much to justify a project, he said.

The Poconos don't have a problem with nitrate runoff, wrote Chris Wood, Dingman Twp. sewage enforcement officer, in a letter to the chamber.

"In order to protect the water quality, DEP makes it very difficult to place a sewage treatment plan on an HQ (high quality) stream. It is nearly impossible to place one on an EV (exceptional value) stream," he wrote. "As such, people residing in HQ or EV streams must rely on the use of on-lot sewage systems."

The streams classified EV are the most pristine, and curbing nitrate runoff is needed to maintain that status, said Myron Arnowitt of Pittsburgh-based Clean Water Action, a statewide environmental group. EV streams are usually in forested areas and that classification may apply to just one segment of an entire stream.

The runoff in a forested area may not be as much as in an agricultural area, but it still occurs, Arnowitt said.

Contact the writer: rswift@timesshamrock.com