On Thursday, August 20th, 2009 the fourth and final meeting of the Virginia Department of Health “Alternative On site Sewage Systems Emergency Regulations Ad Hoc Committee” took place. I have participated 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 on site sewage systems. The regulations must go into effect no later than April 6, 2010 and must also contain Operation and Maintenance requirements for alternative on site sewage systems. It is the goal of the Virginia Department of Health to promulgate the regulations in the third quarter and have them go into effect before the end of the year.
For the final meeting, members of the Ad Hoc Committee and the Department of Health made a full court press to pull together and wrap up the process. I for one found the meeting and the materials provided both thought provoking and satisfying. The Committee was able to come to a consensus thanks in a large part to the able facilitation by Bruce Dotson of CSR of the University of Virginia. All the loosely controlled discussions of various people’s point of views allowed the Committee members to develop an appreciation of other perspectives to enrich our understanding of the difficulty of the problem. This broadening of our viewpoints allowed us to be accepting of the majority opinion for the scope of the performance requirements and horizontal setbacks necessary achieve our goal. Hopefully, the suggestions of the Committee will be incorporated into the emergency regulations.
To a large extent the final vote of the Committee was impacted by the materials provided by other Committee members. Colin Bishop of Bord Na Mona Environmental Products provided some research articles that clarified, for me, the issues on horizontal setbacks despite the reasonable arguments for a narrower limit for engineer designed systems. Most influential in my thinking was some of the older, but still valid research from the RS Kerr Environmental Research Laboratory in Ada, Oklahoma. When I worked for the US EPA this was the laboratory providing the groundwater research that was used in the development of groundwater models and regulations. The study by Marylynn V. Yates points out that septic tanks contribute 800 billion gallons of waste water per year to the subsurface. The study found that the most important factor influencing groundwater contamination by septic tanks is the density of systems in an area and the distance to the contamination point. It is as simple as that. The fewer systems per square mile the less chance of contamination. Distance from a septic system, the so called horizontal set backs are the final protection from harm especially for those of us who obtain our drinking water from private water supplies.
In a memo, Merle Fallon and a co-author who are very familiar with Department of Environmental Quality regulations pointed out that the Virginia Department of Health regulations for clustered system should be compatible with the current DEQ regulations for operators of alternative on site sewage systems. The rules for the operators should be substantially the same. In addition they point out that a single set of horizontal set backs will provide consistency. Though secondary treatment levels provided by alternative on site systems might allow the reduction in setback in some circumstances, using the standard setbacks allows for simplicity and provides a secondary degree of protection. When the Committee voted (thought it was in reference to engineered designs horizontal setbacks) it was in overwhelming support that the horizontal setbacks from drinking water, property lines and surface water were to be maintained for single family alternative septic systems. The balance of providing a reasonable secondary level of protection, especially in environmentally sensitive areas, defined as proximity to surface and drinking water supplies while allowing development and use of property was achieved. At least for me the logic of the argument presented by Marcia and Merle and information provided by Colin was most convincing. Virginia’s water supply is one of its great assets and should be carefully protected to ensure that the Commonwealth can continue to grow and prosper in years ahead.