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Island County septic costs criticized, but program will stay

Central Whidbey resident Jeff Lauderdale argues against the septic inspection program required by the county during Monday’s Board of Health meeting in Coupeville.  - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Central Whidbey resident Jeff Lauderdale argues against the septic inspection program required by the county during Monday’s Board of Health meeting in Coupeville.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

More than 20 people descended upon a routine Island County Board of Health meeting Monday to hear arguments against the county’s new septic system inspection program, which the top health official admits has problems.

Jeff Lauderdale, a mechanical engineer, arrived with a Power Point presentation, arguing that the county’s new program is based on faulty science, doesn’t focus on other sources of water contamination and is too expensive.

“I think we’ve implemented an extremely costly and inefficient program,” Lauderdale said.

The Board of Health is comprised of the Island County commissioners, Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik, health officer Roger Case, a hospital commissioner and a representative from the Navy hospital.

To comply with state regulations, the county requires homeowners to regularly inspect their septic system. The cost to a homeowner varies depending on the type of septic system and the home’s proximity to environmentally sensitive land. Inspections have to take place between one and three years. In certain cases, the homeowner may attend a county class and learn to inspect their own system. Otherwise, the cost for the inspection is running about $250, plus an additional $61 filing fee at the county.

Lauderdale argued that some of the science the county used, namely the nitrate levels, isn’t enough of a problem currently to justify implementing an inspection program. He said the numerous wastewater treatment plants scattered through the county could be more of an issue for water contamination than homes.

Coupeville resident Gary Wray worried that the septic inspection program is too costly for low-income homeowners.

“It’s a huge part of their income,” said Wray, who is currently helping build a home for Habitat for Humanity. He added that the fee that the county charges property owners is based on 10 percent of homeowners complying.

“Ten percent compliance isn’t a law,” Wray said.

Island County Health Director Keith Higman accepted blame for causing some of the controversy.

“I think I missed the mark,” Higman said, adding that he helped assemble the information that Lauderdale ultimately used in his presentation.

He said that the nitrogen information wasn’t really prepared for septic systems. He said it was originally gathered to compare whether agricultural or residential properties have greater amounts. As for the compliance rate, he said the 10 percent number was developed because it would guarantee the county would collect enough money to operate the program.

From a surface water quality monitoring program, county officials found that 70 percent of the county’s watersheds exceed state standards for fecal coliform. Higman said that if the problem isn’t addressed, it could lead to more beach closures.

“There are a lot of septic systems that are failing and there’s a lot of tanks that are over-full,” said Angie Homola, county commissioner and Board of Health member.

When broken down, the inspection cost is less expensive than what a homeowner in Oak Harbor pays for sewage service, Homola said.

Lauderdale wants the county to start over and form a citizens committee that isn’t staffed by people who would benefit from the inspection program.

South Whidbey resident Rufus Rose suggested another public hearing should take place at which state Department of Health officials could attend and answer residents’ questions.

However, it doesn’t appear likely the county will suspend its septic inspection program, which is mandated by state law.

Lauderdale said he was disappointed in the non-decision by the Board of Health. He said the inspections won’t accomplish anything.

“The point I’m trying to get across is that it’s a huge waste of money,” Lauderdale said.

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