Countyworks on draft for OSS plan

Published on Thu, Oct 11, 2007 by Jack Kintner

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County works on draft for OSS plan

By Jack Kintner

Whatcom County Council is reviewing the way it intends to meet more stringent state requirements for inspecting on-site septic systems after getting feedback that the county’s rules were overly restrictive and too expensive for homeowners to meet.

While there is general agreement that such systems need to be in good working order, there is sharp disagreement over who should inspect the systems – licensed specialists at a cost of up to $300 for complex pump systems or, with some training, the homeowners themselves as state law currently allows.

State law that went into effect last summer requires all on-site sewage systems (OSS) to be inspected at least once every three years for gravity feed designs and once each year for more complex systems that involve pumps.

The law does not require the inspections to be done by a licensed specialist, and some counties have opted to allow homeowners to do their own once they’ve completed a training session.

However, the state code does allow counties to be more restrictive in their rules than the state law, which is what the county council (meeting as the county board of health) decided to do in a 4-3 vote last February, the majority following the advice of the Whatcom County Health Department (WCHD).

Strong public reaction to the new rules has caused the council to review its earlier decision. In developing the state-required local OSS management plan the council has asked the WCDH to write a modified rule that would allow homeowners in some areas to do their own inspections as long as they received training.

Further complicating the picture are additional state regulations affecting on-site systems that were passed in 2006 for the 12 counties in the Puget Sound basin.

House bill 1458 requires counties to define marine recovery areas within their borders according to state guidelines, identify every septic system in them and either have them in good working order or shut down by 2012.

John Wolpers, an WCHD environmental health manager, said that this includes both “known and unknown systems, that is, those that have permits and plans on file and those that do not. We have to find them.”

In Whatcom County the first area to be designated as a marine recovery area is the 54-square mile Drayton Harbor Watershed. According to WCDH advisory committee member David Davidson, “our committee was quite strong in its conviction that inside these critical and sensitive areas, licensed inspectors should be looking at these systems frequently.

We had a wide range of people in on the discussion, including representatives from the Building Industry Association of Washington, septic designers, OSS pumpers, licensed inspectors, homeowners, environmental protection people from the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Advisory Committee and the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm. They all felt strongly that to protect the resource and the public health that we needed to insure that the inspections were both thorough, objective and competently done.”

“This is really stupid because we’re beating people over the head rather than working with them,” said Whatcom County Council member Barbara Brenner. Brenner added: “once homeowners take a class they’ll see just how costly a failure can be, and will stay on top of it.

“With 30,000 systems in the county, the estimated 5 percent failure rate means that we might have about 1,500 failed systems county wide. I think we should find them first and then see how bad the problem is before throwing up a bunch of expensive regulations.”

The county council, meeting with the county board of health, examined the WCDH draft proposal for the state-required OSS local management plan last week but did not approve it, instead handing it back to the WCDH with the request that they include language to allow homeowners to do their own inspections, something that is likely to be approved outside critical areas according to Davidson.

The draft will be re-submitted and be subjected to a public hearing that has yet to be scheduled, but will likely be sometime late this month or early in November.

“That’s when people can let the council know how they feel,” said Brenner.