Sound Off: Septic proposals not so onerous

By Roger Case, M.D.

I am writing in response to the Sound off article in the Feb. 12 edition of the Whidbey News-Times, “Onerous septic rules in the works.”

I am encouraged to see the interest generated around proposed septic regulations being considered by the State Board of Health, because any regulations eventually adopted will ultimately affect many homeowners in our county. The draft regulation has undergone much iteration to date, and will be under consideration at the March 9 State Board of Health meeting.

The Saturday article is not fully consistent with the present draft, however, and I offer the following comments.

The reference to one-half acre lots in the proposed regulation is for new subdivision of land only. Existing lots of record do not have to meet this standard. Additionally, the proposed draft, like the existing rule, provides a mechanism to subdivide at a density of up to 3.5 dwelling units per acre when technical justification can be provided that minimizes groundwater mounding of septic effluent or other water quality impacts to groundwater.

Existing systems are grandfathered under the proposed rule so long as they are not failing (just like the existing regulations). There is nothing in the proposed rule that requires existing systems to upgrade retroactively.

Although the original draft of the rule did require homeowners to obtain inspections from a third-party provider the draft rule now allows homeowners to inspect their own systems. The existing rule has always required septic tank inspections every three years (by the home owner), and most local health departments have not chosen to actively enforce that requirement, rather using reminders to notify the public that it is a good idea to look at your system periodically. The writer’s comments about record keeping and reporting at the time of title transfer are accurate.

The writer suggests that the proposed rule provides a mechanism for condemning property if a problem is encountered and a solution cannot remedy the problem, especially if the property is less than one-half acre. The proposed regulation, consistent with the existing regulation, provides a mechanism for repairing or replacing failing systems with something less than that required for new construction. We regularly issue what we call Table 6 repairs which allow homeowners continued use of their property even though their septic systems do not meet the established standards. In the past 10 years we have never condemned a property based upon an unacceptable repair. Many of the properties that we have dealt with were extremely marginal in their ability to support a septic system, and yet we have found a way to work with the property owner to establish an acceptable solution.

In his article, the writer made reference to the Dept. of Ecology, House Bill 1458 and Senate Bill 5431. These bills, introduced by the People for Puget Sound, do propose drastic changes to the on-site regulations, especially in the area of operation and maintenance. The State Dept. of Health and the Washington Environmental Health Director’s Association both testified against these bills last week in Olympia. Please be advised that these bills are not related to the proposed regulations being considered by the State Board of Health.

The proposed rule change is lengthy and contains a significant amount of technical detail. In order to effectively evaluate its full implications, it is important to clearly define what it all means in terms of implementation. You can access the proposed rule at www3.doh.wa.gov/policyreview and scrolling down to WAC 246-272A (the fourth document down).

Roger S Case, MD, is health officer, Island County. He can be reached by e-mail at rogerc@co.island.wa.us.

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