County adopts new septic regulations

The Island County Board of Health, to the discontentment of some citizens, accepted a bulk of the proposed on-site sewer system regulations at a Monday marathon public hearing.

The new rules will mean regular inspections of septic tanks and the possibility of stiff fines for violations.

Keith Higman, Island County Health Department environmental health director, went over the changes that have been exhaustively discussed in six previous workshops. The workshops were held in anticipation of the state’s July 1 deadline for counties developing a septic operations and maintenance plan. The county’s plan was adopted June 18 and forwarded to the state Department of Health.

“We have completed step one of the process,” he said. “Now it’s time to consider revisions to the regulations.”

“We need the code now because designers and installers need something to go on,” said Tim McDonald, county health department director. “We need the local portion of this code.”

The board previously agreed to accept a risk-based delineation system for the county where septic systems are used. Only drainage basins surrounding Penn Cove and southern Holmes Harbor were tagged as “high risk” areas, the former based on criteria established by the state Department of Ecology.

Properties within 100 feet of the marine shoreline were added to the Category 3, or “increased risk,” areas.

Conventional septic systems, commonly called gravity systems, in the high risk categories will be required to be inspected once every three years and may be inspected by the homeowner or a professional.

All systems other than conventional gravity systems are considered alternative septic systems. Alternative systems, which include pressure systems, must be inspected every year by a professional inspector. An exception applies to homeowners not in high-risk areas.

For the lowest risk category, the timelines are the same, but resident homeowners can inspect conventional systems and a system involving pressure distribution, which is the only case a homeowner can inspect that particular alternative system.

Several hearing attendees, among the approximately 30 people in the commissioners’ hearing room, inquired about septic system inspection training. County Commissioner Mike Shelton assured the audience that the WSU Extension will offer a comprehensive course in the coming year.

Arguably the most contentious regulation is the imposition of administrative penalties for noncompliance. After three letters have been sent to a property owner over the course of 90 days, a fine of $25 for low-risk violations can be imposed or $250 a day for high-risk violations.

Board member Barbara Saugen emphasized that the system is put in place to allow ample time for compliance. Higman reiterated that the intent is not to impose fines, but to protect public health.

The state Department of Health returned the draft code with 20 minor changes. In addition, the board wanted to revisit four separate sections, including the revocation, suspension or modification of operational permits.

Commissioner Mac McDowell was concerned that linking compliance with other activities like permitting could unnecessarily slow a process that has been streamlined. Health Department staff will discuss the issue with personnel from planning and community development, as well as the solid waste department.

The other issues postponed revolved around references in property regulations directing people with repaired drain fields or new development to connect to sewer systems.

Pete Brady of Oak Harbor questioned the necessity of the regulations. He asked the board and health department staff how many sewer systems have failed in the last five years. Higman said it is not a large number. With 25,000 systems in the county, Brady called the amount insignificant.

“I hope it stays that way,” he said. “I don’t see much solid scientific data in terms of failed septic systems.”

Brady called the proposal “too complex, too invasive and too unreasonable.”

“This violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” he said, adding that the inspections are unreasonable search and seizure.

Higman estimated that 50 to 100 systems fail each year. The Health Department is currently relying on residents reporting their failed system. The inspections will help keep closer tabs on the systems.

McDonald said that some shoreline properties still have direct discharge.

“Those are the sort of scenarios that are meant to be addressed,” he said.

Tom Trepanier of Dugualla Bay questioned the quantifiability of a failed system.

“Is it quantifiable and who quantifies it? What are those numbers?” he asked.

Agreeing with Brady, Kenneth Wolf of Coupeville said the state is imposing mandates on the potential of exposure, not scientific data. And the county, he added, is attempting to use “strong arm tactics to impose fines” that affects every taxpayer.

“I don’t need additional government regulation or expenditure of tax dollars,” he said to an eruption of applause.

A special Board of Health meeting will be held today at 1 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room to discuss the state’s corrections and the four items. Another public hearing will be held Aug. 20 at 1:30 p.m. in Coupeville.

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