County council makes final decision on septic rules
By Jack Kintner
Owners of on-site septic (OSS) systems will still have to have inspections every year to three years, depending upon the type of system, but other requirements were relaxed by the Whatcom County Council March 25.
Changes from those originally included in ordinances based on state-mandated legislation passed a year ago don’t go far enough for council member Barbara Brenner. “It’s still overkill, in my opinion,” she said, “because I would have preferred more flexibility but the amendments are a great improvement over what we had.”
The original ordinance proposed by the Whatcom County Health Department required owners of gravity feed systems to have an inspection every three years and owners of all other systems to have annual inspections, all to be performed by a county licensed operations and maintenance (O&M) specialist. This was done in response to state legislation passed several years ago with a deadline for compliance of April 1 of this year.
An inspection of a gravity feed system for a three bedroom two bath house inside Blaine by a licensed O & M specialist was done last Monday and cost $260, a typical expense according to Brian Thompson of J.W. Septic.
The changes enacted by the county council allow qualified homeowners to do their own inspections much of the time, and also dropped a requirement that individuals seeking to become licensed inspectors prove that they have two years experience in the field. Homeowners will qualify to do their own inspections by taking a class that the health department is currently designing.
Additionally, owners of systems that are in county defined sensitive areas, such as the Drayton Harbor Watershed around Blaine, will now have the same rules and inspection requirements as will others in the county. Since the ordnance is part of the county health department regulations, they apply equally inside or outside of incorporated areas such as the city of Blaine.
According to Brenner, the first inspection has to be performed by a professional O & M specialist. As long as the system passes that first inspection, qualified owners can then do the next two inspections for gravity systems, doing one each third year, before having a licensed inspector come back for the third inspection.
For all other systems, qualified owners may do the inspections as well but they must be done annually, and a professional inspection is required again after seven years. “The frequency of inspections is dictated by the State of Washington. The frequency of professional inspections is dictated by Whatcom County,” said Brenner, “and this is an unfunded mandate from the state, which is why each time a report is filed the county will charge a $35 fee.”
If the system does not pass then owners will be responsible for fixing it, something that could approach $15,000 or more for a gravity feed system, according to Thompson. Newly-elected county treasurer Steve Oliver is actively looking for ways to sponsor low-interest loans for homeowners who may be faced with a sudden large expense, Brenner said.
County council members also removed language from the final ordnance that mandated an April 1 deadline for tank inspection, “because we weren’t ready and would have then put everyone in violation of the law,” Brenner said. The county health department will be responsible for sending out questionnaires to survey homeowners about their systems and how recently they’ve been inspected. “There’s no need to rush into this,” Brenner said, “although an inspection done this year will probably count as your first one.”
The inspection involves opening up the septic tank, usually a 1,000 gallon concrete box buried next to a drain field. A layer of slime will be seen floating on top of the liquid and a layer of sludge lays on the bottom. The inspector checks the tank, using a flashlight and mirrors, and uses a long plastic tube to take a sample of the sludge and check to see how thick it is.
Then a dye test is done by coupling a dye canister to the homeowner’s garden hose and letting it run into the open tank for a half hour or so until several hundred gallons have gone in. After a short wait the tank is pumped out, if the inspection warrants that, following which the drain fields is inspected for the presence of dye. “If it fails, it’s obvious right away,” said Thompson.