On Thursday, July 16, 2009 the second meeting of the Virginia Department of Health “Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems Emergency Regulations Ad Hoc Committee” took place. I am a participant in the process representing the homeowner’s point of view. 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.
This past Thursday’s meeting focused on reviewing the form and content of regulations of other states. The meeting focused particularly on existing regulatory schemes which varied more in format and detail than in basic approach. The meeting began with Operations and Maintenance schemes from the Virginia Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association and North Carolina. The requirements of the two programs was not vastly different, the true difference was in presentation. The North Carolina program clearly and simply presented the program so that any homeowner who looked up the regulation would understand that annual inspection and maintenance of the program was required. This was very clear and straight forward. I feel that regulatory requirements that are easy to identify and understand are essential to make an Operation and Maintenance program work. My own efforts at identifying what I needed to do and what was recommended I do were very instructive. Really, I needed to be an engineer with a regulatory background to figure it out. The conflicting responses I received from potential service providers were not helpful in identifying the regulations at that time.
I, like many members of the group, liked the idea of an operating permit that was issued when the system was first installed (spelling out the Operations and Maintenance requirements) and then had to be renewed by each successive home owner. The positives of a renewable operating permit was that each time the home changed hands the alternative septic system would have to be tested and the new owners would be informed of their responsibilities. I thought this was great until Allen Knapp of the VDH clearly pointed out to me the administrative quagmire that would result if the Virginia Department of Health were required to track all real estate transactions. Administrating such a program would be nearly impossible without vast resources to track the real estate market. Reflecting on his comments I realized that it would be unlikely that a bank or other lender would close on a loan for a property without a valid operating permit for the alternative septic system. Thus, unfortunately, a renewable operating permit for an alternative septic system is not a viable solution to ensuring that these systems continue to function over time and are properly maintained. Clear communication and consumer education will have to be cornerstones of the regulations.
For system performance requirements the group focused on a proposal from Anish Jantrania a former Virginia regulator and currently an engineer with Northwest Cascade, the Arizonian regulations and a light brush with the North Carolina performance regulations. Anish’s proposal was entirely qualitative while the Arizona regulations presented by Colin Bishop a former Arizona regulator and currently with BNM-US, the manufacturer of Pruaflo systems. The Arizona approach was entirely quantitative and encompassed 129 pages of detail. Since I am not a system designer of septic systems, but simply a user I learned a lot from the discussion of these two approaches. The essential point was how much leeway to allow licensed engineers in their designs. The Arizona approach was very much like snapping together a system with sized and regulated components. This is very much a Lego approach, plug and play. The qualitative approach was far more dependent on engineering judgment and practice and susceptible to abuse by the unscrupulous. After listening to various points of view I think the qualitative system design approach is most appropriate for the clustered alternative systems. The single family home applications should possibly be more tightly regulated because of the variation in use and maintenance of systems by different home owners. The regulations need to ensure that any failure by these individual systems would be contained on the homeowners own lot. Tightly constricted numeric performance requirements are best for this segment. I look forward to seeing where the VDH takes these regulations. Given the short time frame I question if they would have time to develop the scope of the Arizona regulations.