On Thursday, June 25, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health convened its “Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems Emergency Regulations Ad Hoc Committee.” I am a participant in the process representing the citizens of Virginia. Legislation approved in 2009 (HB 2551, Acts of Assembly, 2009, Ch 220) requires the Board of Health to promulgate emergency regulations to establish performance requirements and horizontal setbacks necessary to protect public health and the environment for alternative onsite sewage systems. The regulations must go into effect no later than April 6, 2010 and must also contain operation and maintenance requirements for alternative onsite sewage systems. The Department of Health has clearly studied the issue for a period of time; however, their difficulty in promulgating regulations became clear at the meeting. The need to balance the requirements necessary to assure public health and the protection of the waters of the Commonwealth with costs and enforceability is a daunting task.
The problem is that alternative septic systems will not continue to function as designed without regular maintenance. I had my alternative Delta Whitewater three tank system serviced a couple of weeks back, I then sampled the third tank and found that it was functioning better than the 70-30 design parameter. Within two weeks (and on the day of the meeting at the Virginia Department of Health) the compressor failed. It took less than 24 hours for the septic service company to replace the compressor and have the system literally humming again. I am fairly confident that there was no significant loss of function in the aerobic tank during its short down time given the low load on the system at this time. This episode was troubling precisely because of the coincidence. The manufacturer assured me that intermittent system breakdowns are not usual, but the distributor of the equipment and the provider of my service contract told me that there have been several breakdowns of compressors. I have to admit that I have a finicky piece of expensive equipment in my back yard that requires attention and regular service to continue operating over the next 30 years. How do we create regulations that will ensure that all of these alternative systems in the Commonwealth are maintained in an appropriate manner? The fact that these systems alarm rather than lie quietly until they back up into the house is a true advantage.
The Piedmont Environment Council fought against this legislation to protect the waters of Virginia. The PEC felt that localities should be able to ban these types of systems rather than risk allowing systems that are not maintained. I disagreed with W. Todd Benson of the PEC because I believe we need these regulations and I believe that these systems are superior to traditional septic systems. The vast majority of septic systems on the Chesapeake Bay watershed are traditional systems. Since 1985 the nitrogen releases by these systems has increased almost 25% this is the only category that has increased over this period of time. While the population has grown, it has not grown by 25% over this time. I believe that the septic systems that were installed in the post world war housing booms are failing. These systems need to be replaced and the replacements need to be maintained. Alternative septic systems in either clusters or individual units could reduce this increasing contaminant source, but only if the systems were properly maintained and monitored. So developing a functional and effective set of regulations for alternative septic systems could contribute to the improvement of the Chesapeake Watershed. It is a small step, but it is an important first step in understanding how to regulate non-point source contamination.