Sound Off: Onerous septic rules in works

By Joseph Mosolino

New government regulations are coming down the pike that will affect everyone who has a septic system now or plans to build one. Even if septic systems make you yawn, read this. This news could have a hefty impact on your pocketbook — or even on where you live. If your home is connected to a public sewer system, you need to pay attention, too. Should these regulations be implemented, your relatives may come knocking, looking for a place to stay!

I just finished reading an 82 page document from Washington State’s Department of Health, outlining an extensive revision of the state code for Onsite Sewage Systems (OSS). Their premise: Current regulations allow failing or inefficient septic systems to threaten public health with disease and birth defects. Consequently, the revision requires that most lots will need to be at least one-half acre in size to qualify for a septic permit.

Many parcels without the requisite half acre necessary for the septic system will be refused building permits.

Gravity-flow septic systems must be inspected by government certified inspectors every three years; non-gravity systems yearly. This inspection will investigate the entire system (not just the tank), according to the revised standards. Homeowners pay for these inspections, and will need inspection documentation to sell their property.

Existing systems won’t be grandfathered. In other words, if they don’t meet new inspection standards, they must be upgraded. Homeowners pay, of course.

If property size or soil structure can’t accommodate the upgrade and owners can’t tap into a sewer line, the property may be condemned without compensation to the owner.

If we really were in septic system danger, I’d view the whole thing differently. But even the Dept. of Health’s own analysis doesn’t prove a need for these changes. After citing seven isolated incidents (only one in Washington) of suspected OSS water contamination that led to disease over the past 33 years, that DOH analysis states, “It is impossible to address whether OSS are associated with an increase in the incidence or prevalence of enteric (intestinal) infections.” In addition, “Assessing the impact of OSS on the risk of ‘methemoglobinemia’ (blue baby syndrome caused by excess nitrogen) is similarly difficult . . . very few cases are reported.” When discussing EPA statistics on viral and bacterial illnesses, the DOH’s own report speaks to the success of current regulations: “Fortunately, in large part because of the current regulations, such outbreaks are relatively rare…OSS are being located, designed, and installed with higher levels of quality control..relatively low numbers of outbreaks in the United States are related to standards for OSS . . .”

Most of us have heard ugly stories of a pipe from an old home dumping sewage directly into a county ditch or of a neglected septic system that smelled up the neighborhood. But are inadequate septic systems the norm? Do we need new regulations? Wouldn’t we be better served by improved monitoring and maintenance according to existing regulations, instead of allowing the Departments of Health and Ecology to change land use law and create financial hardship or loss of property use for homeowners?

What do you think? You can read the proposed rules and make comments at www3doh.wa.gov/policyreview. The public comment period for this final revision is open until Feb. 18. Then March 9, the state Board of Health will hold a hearing on the changes. (Related bills before the legislature are HB 1458 and SB 5431. Track them at www.leg.wa.gov/BillInfo.

Joseph Mosolino is a Realtor in Oak Harbor. He is a member of the Washington Association of Realtors Legislative Steering Committee and the co-chair for government affairs for the North Puget Sound Association of Realtors.

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