Today, September 28, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health published their proposed Alternative Onsite Septic System, AOSS, regulations for public comment. There is only a 30 day window for public comments. Please take this opportunity to comment.
The purpose of the regulations is to ensure that these more effective treatment systems are maintained in a manner to allow them to function properly to be protective of the environment and public health. It is widely accepted, but not documented that improperly managed septic systems contribute to major water quality problems. The US EPA states in the “Volunteer National Guidelines for Management of Onsite and Clustered Treatment Systems” that improper design, construction, installation, operation and/or maintenance are the source of these onsite waste treatment failures. EPA hopes to better determine the extent of the relationship as documentation becomes available. In 2003 EPA reported that 168,000 viral and 34,000 bacterial illnesses occur nationally each year from drinking water contaminated by waterborne pathogens from fecal contamination. Proper maintenance of septic systems (both traditional and alternative) is essential for protection of public health and local water resources. The EPA estimates that 29-30% of Virginia households have septic systems and that 8% of theses systems are AOSS.
The research into the contamination from septic systems was performed at the RS Kerr Environmental Research Laboratory in Ada, Oklahoma. The classic study by Marylynn V. Yates points out that septic systems 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 systems 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. The proposed regulations maintain and expand the conservative set backs for traditions systems.
The AOSS were approved by the state based on demonstrations of their functioning and effectiveness. In the proposed regulations the Commonwealth is going to require outside operators to inspect and maintain these systems in perpetuity at a cost to the home owner of $400-$600 per year (the basic contract where I live is $480, but the provider will grant a 25% discount if I get a group of at least 10 families together.). This level of oversight and maintenance should ensure that these AOSS function as intended and ensure that anomalies and alarm situations are responded to in a timely manner.
Ideally, homeowners should care for their septic systems appropriately to avoid the system back up in the future, contamination of the groundwater (which may be the source of the local drinking water), and future septic system repair bills of tens of thousands of dollars to remediate and replace a system. Many homeowners are unaware of how septic systems work and what is necessary to maintain them. In addition, many people do not seem to be able take appropriate responsibility for their systems. One method to deal with this problem is to eliminate all but the most basic systems in the most geologically favorable locations (reduce percolation rate tolerances and design the systems as conservatively as possible). The other method is to regulate, control and track. Establish system performance and monitoring and maintenance requirements, establish a tracking system for compliance monitoring. Virginia has taken the tact to require outside operators and an ongoing operations and maintenance contract. There is no opportunity for an interested homeowner to obtain the skills and knowledge to operate and maintain their own systems. I do not know if this is the right answer, but it is the one the VDH picked.
All AOSS systems were demonstrated to perform satisfactorily to be approved for use in the Commonwealth. Monitoring and operating these AOSS systems with professional operators is designed to ensure a single family home (low volume) unit is functioning. In addition, the VDH proposes that single family AOSS be required to have the outside operator sample and send out for analysis system effluent every five years. As an old chemical engineer I know how misleading a single sample once every five years can be. Septic systems are impacted by volume, load, temperature and humidity. The AOSSs are really the most basic and tiny of waste treatment plants. These systems were tested over a period of time and conditions to demonstrate an acceptable operating average performance.
A single sample every five years will provide little if any useful information that is not provided by an initial demonstration of functioning and on going maintenance and inspection. If a system is tested and does not meet the design averages, does it fail? What range around the design parameters is officially acceptable to the VDH? If a system fails, protocol would require a retesting (at the consumer’s expense). If the system “failed” to meet the design parameters adjustments to the use or operation of the system would be then be made and the system retested again at the home owners expense. How many rounds of testing would be required to determine that the “average” parameter was met? Or would the Department of Health simply ignore the results and allow the systems to continue to operate until the next five year sample date? In real life design parameters will sometimes be exceeded and sometimes not met. THE VDH has not quantitative standards for these operating ranges, but wants quantitative sampling performed every five years. At what levels does the VDH take enforcement action, or require further investigation? Without these answers how can a sampling program be instituted that is anything more than data gathering? If the VDH has no intention of using the data for enforcement it is inappropriate to require this level of expenditure from home owners. What is the limit of the amount of money the VDH will require to be spent by a home owner? I do not believe the environment or public health of the Commonwealth will benefit from this sampling. This requirement creates a permanent substantial and open ended additional cost to the homeowner above the annual cost of having an operator maintain the system.
I investigated the costs of testing an AOSS with an ATU by having the third tank sampled. To test for Total Coliform, ecoli, and Nitrate-Nitrite cost $321.42 (which included a 10% discount for having a maintenance contract). Sampling BOD, TSS, Oil and Grease and Nitrate-Nitrite, as Nitrogen samples from the third tank cost $353.58 (also including a 10% discount). For $675 all these parameters could by tested by the outside operator. This level of cost, even at a five year interval is excessive on top of the operations and maintenance contract. This cost could financially stress a home owner. The possibility to have to retest, take corrective action or develop an average effluent profile to demonstrate compliance with a design parameter is an open ended financial liability that might have no benefit to the environment or public health, but could have dire consequences on the financial viability of the home owner. Routine inspections and maintenance should serve to identify systems that are not functioning properly. If there appears to be an on going problem then sampling and testing could be performed if the operator in consultation with the VDH felt it could help resolve an operating problem.
The success of the regulations in protecting the environment and public health will depend on the compliance of the AOSS owners. For the individual home owner the regulations will have to be clear, easily understood by a layman reading them and fair. I believe home owners will be able to accept that AOSS systems need to be annually inspected and maintained by operators at a monthly cost that is around $40. It will be perceived as an additional property tax, but is constant and will become routine like any other homeowner expense.