Thursday, October 15, 2009

Commonwealth of Virginia Proposed Septic System Regulations

On September 28, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health published their proposed Alternative Onsite Septic System, AOSS, regulations for public comment. The window for public comments closes on October 28, 2009. Please take this opportunity to comment.

The proposed regulations implement the legislative mandate of 2007 and require professionals operators certified by DPOR to operate and maintain all alternative onsite septic systems, AOSS. The Virginia code requires the owner of an AOSS, to have that system operated by a licensed operator, as defined in § 32.1-163, and visited by the operator as specified in the operation permit. Effective July 1, 2009, Virginia law requires that soil evaluators, installers, and operators of onsite sewage systems must be licensed by the Board for Waterworks and Wastewater Works Operators and Onsite Sewage System Professionals at the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR). Prior to July 1, 2009, Virginia law did not require a license to practice as an onsite sewage system operator. DPOR’s regulations for licensing operators does not have any sort of exemption or modified certification for homeowners, but should. It is irrational that home owners can operate direct discharge septic units, but the legislation requires that all single family AOSS units be operated and maintained by a licensed operator.

In their proposed regulations the Virginia Department of Health did not have the option of allowing homeowners to operate and maintain their own systems without modifying the DPOR licensing requirements. The legislation passed in 2007 required that licensed operators perform these tasks. The Department of Health, fully aware of the problem, did not attempt to develop an alternative certification for homeowners, instead they choose to propose that single family home AOSS (under 1,000 gallons per day) be required to be operated by a licensed operator, maintained by a licensed operator and sampled. These are the same requirements that are used for AOSS units processing up to 39,999 gallons per day. These requirements combined are far in excess of what is required to ensure that these systems function as designed. It is to be noted that most single family homes operate at far fewer than 1,000 gallons a day.

The requirement for operation and maintenance by a licensed operator favors operator over homeowners, and does not require certification by the manufacturer of all approved systems for implementing operation and maintenance programs. This bias is compounded by the record keeping, and evidence of maintenance contract requirements making it extremely difficult to change operators. I am not give any tools to evaluate operators, yet sa a homeowner I am tied to the operator by the requirement to “Maintain a relationship with an operator.” Before a contract expires the homeowner is required to have another one in place. Finally, a home owner is required to keep a copy of the Operation and Maintenance Manual (O&M Manual) on the property where the AOSS is located, make the manual available to the Department upon request and make a reasonable effort to transfer the O&M Manual to any future owners. The requirements for the manual are listed in the proposed regulations, and appear to be another profit center for the licensed operators to provide these manuals to homeowners. A simple diagram of the system and a list of components and their function would suffice for single family systems. The question is why the VDH is proposing such punishing regulations for single family AOSS that go beyond the need to properly maintain these systems, but serves as a profitability act for the licensed operators.

Alternative onsite septic systems are designed to be state of the art, meeting EPA's treatment standard one. This exceeds the standards for sewage treatment plants and replenishes existing groundwater systems. These alternative onsite systems can be more sustainable to the surrounding ecosystem than sewers and centralized waste treatment and are certainly less expensive for the homeowners in sparsely populated areas. However, the systems need to work properly and these newer alternative systems with multiple tanks, compressors and various parts require consistent maintenance to continue working properly. Rather than attempt to educate the homeowner and offer cost effective solutions to ensuring that AOSS are maintained properly, the VDH has proposed three layers of oversight within the regulations that are likely to result in avoidance of compliance and potentially abandonment of the technology. The VDH is treating low volume single family home AOSS the same way as clustered systems. Is this the best answer for Virginia?

1 comment:

  1. I am an AOSE (Advance Onsite Soil Evaluator) and professional soil scientist in Virginia. We are a small field about 250 private consultants across the state; which has the task of evaluating site conditions and designing, laying out and applying for VDH septic and well construction permits. Our clients are landowners, homeowners, developers and small business people. We "compete" with the public sector, which subsidizes the permitting of onsite sewage through the VDH office system. Most AOSE work on sites that were rejected by the VDH, or for people unwilling or unable to wait for the public sectors brand of "service."

    After a quick read of your paper I felt the need to congratulate you on your understanding of the situation.

    Virginia is in the midst of a reshuffling of priorities. And as you point out the great victims will be people requiring onsite sewage systems. The answer is not sewer projects or discharge systems, for these systems contribute to the depletion of the aquifers from which wells deliver water, by depositing this water in surface water, never to be seen again unless you go down stream. Onsite systems do not have a history of failure, nor are they the weakest link in the chain of public health issues. The Emergency Regulations set such low nitrogen loading rates that will be impossible for AOSE to satisfy the requirements with off the shelf equipment. The only other avenue shall be PE design. If any of your readers were to visit a Lowes or Southern States as the homeowners are hauling out their spring lawn fertilizer you would have a glimpse of the greatest environmental sources of nitrogen, and phosphate.

    There has been decision by back room types to divvy up the territory, require expensive and complicated monitoring and maintainance system and usurping the manufacturers responsibility.
    The passive treatment systems (i.e. peat, or other media filters)are lumped with the same requirements as the most advanced (read unstable) systems with high rate aerobic and mixed media systems and complex controls.

    I hope you and your viewers will post comments to the VDH, (and your forum) while hardly public comment in the legal sense of the term, it is all we have unless the Attorney General takes an interest in the "Emergency Regulations."

    I think it is absurd for treated effluent to be regulated at a higher level than septic tank effluent, but that is what is being proposed.