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Septic inspection progress made

As the state’s July 1 deadline for counties developing a septic operations and maintenance plan fast approaches, the Island County Board of Health made strides last week in firming up crucial details.

The cost to homeowners has weighed heavily on the minds of residents as the series of on-site septic system workshops have been held. Last Tuesday the board voted to recommend to the county commissioners to fund the first 18 months of the program through the general fund.

“They recommended that the source of continuing funding after Dec. 31, 2008 be left open for discussion,” said Tim McDonald, Island County Health Services director.

The board also 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.

“Penn Cove and basins surrounding it are on the list because of fluctuations in dissolved oxygen content, which is believed to be naturally occurring,” McDonald said. “It’s scientifically controversial. In my opinion Penn Cove’s low dissolved oxygen is not man caused.”

Properties along marine shorelines within 100 feet of the 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 professional inspectors. 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, except in Southern Holmes Harbor and the areas surrounding Penn Cove.

In high risk areas, homeowners can only conduct inspections of conventional systems at the same frequency as the high risk areas.

The Island County Health Department intends to partner with WSU Extension to offer courses to train homeowners preferring to inspect their own systems.

“We’ll work with WSU to develop that,” McDonald said.

To provide assurance of compliance, the board agreed to partner with permitting entities to ensure that no other type of permit is granted if a homeowner is out of compliance with septic system inspections.

The board also agreed to link the inspection process to the transfer of property titles, adding another level of assurance.

“We’d work with local title companies,” said Keith Higman, environmental health director. “The board agreed to have this done.”

A penalty system will involve a series of at least three letters mailed to a property owner out of compliance in increments of 30 days. After 90 days have transpired the county could issue a $25 per day penalty for low risk areas and $250 a day for high risk areas.

“Only after we’ve exhausted every avenue will we consider imposing a fine,” said Higman. “Our ultimate goal is public health protection, not penalizing people.”

The new program will be phased in gradually. The first 18 months will include the creation of a septic owner training program and implementation, as well as significant public education and outreach.

The second phase will begin Jan. 1, 2009.

A fourth workshop will be held Monday at 1:30 p.m. in the Commissioners’ Hearing Room at the Island County Courthouse Annex Building.

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