Monday, November 9, 2009

Virginia’s Emergency Alternative Onsite Septic System Regulations Comments 1

On September 28, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health published their proposed Alternative Onsite Septic System, AOSS, regulations for public comment. There was a 30 day comment period that closed on October 28th 2009. On Friday, November 6, 2009 the Department of Health posted the comments. I was a little surprised to see both my comments and what I thought was a personal e-mail to Alan Knapp posted as comments. Nonetheless, I learned a lot reading through the comments and was really pleased with all the sheer number of people who participated in the regulatory process. The comments and emergency regulations are posted on the VDH website for your review. There are 187 pages of comments from designers, regulators, manufacturers, environmental groups, consultants, and homeowners. Some of the comments are so technical in nature that I fear the resolution would require a multi year experimental program. Many comments are interesting.

Thomas Crow of the Fairfax Co. Health Department points out that “In the initial stages finding an operator for home owners will be difficult and expensive. There are very few operators for a home owner to choose from in today’s market. We suggest providing an effective date for this paragraph to allow time for the infrastructure to be built to meet the demand.” He goes on to suggest that Emergency Regulations require that “…operating permits must be renewed every five years by the Health Department. We believe that requirement is necessary because local Health Departments lack the staff necessary to adequately provide oversight to the program as described in the regulations. Requiring a renewable permit will make it ensure that the Health Department is able to evaluate each AOSS at least every five years.” So, every year the Health Department will have to issue or renew operating permits complete with sampling for 20% of all AOSS in the state and every new system built. I do not think that will alleviate the staffing issue. Furthermore, if the operating permit lapses is the occupancy permit voided or must the homeowner begin pump and haul until such time that the department of health renews the permit. I think the idea of outside licensed operators and computer systems was intended to automate compliance someday, not create a system where the VDH needs to manually review and issue a new permit for an ever growing number of systems each year.

Scott Fincham also of the VDH points out that according to his reading of the regulations “Low Pressure Distribution System’s will be considered Alternative (AOSS) and thus require maintenance and monitoring.”

W. Todd Benson of the Piedmont Environmental Council points to the USGS research on the Potomac River that identified intersexed fish. Researchers identified the presence of endocrine disruptors. “Evidence is mounting that trace levels of prescription drugs in rivers and streams may be harming fish, tadpoles, frogs, mussels and oysters. Obviously, the same constituents in the solid and liquid waste stream of conventional waste water treatment works should be expected in AOSS effluent. One might assume that the risk posed by and individual AOSS is the same or better than individual, traditional septic system and, therefore, the permitting of individual AOSSs should be allowed. But the assumption of no greater harm dissipates as the systems grow in size.” Emerging chemicals of concern will be an issue to septic systems, AOSS, clustered systems and sewage treatment plants in the future. It is unknown which of these systems will prove most protective of human health and the environment. Soil filtration may prove to be more effective that point source release. There is still much research to be done in this emerging area of investigation. Todd is correct when he states “These regulations are prepared without any analysis of or attention to the problem of endocrine disruptors or other chemicals of concern.” The PEC recommends that all AOSSs other than individual AOSSs should be banned.

Several different investigations within the Fish and Wildlife Service and US Geological Survey studied the relationship between wastewater treatment plants, other chemicals, and the impacted fish. The study Todd refers to found the problem of endocrine disruption in fish to be widespread in the limited study area of a portion of the Chesapeake Water Shed, but increased in proximity to and downstream of the wastewater treatment plants. Chemical sampling that took place along with the fish sampling found higher concentrations of wastewater chemicals near the wastewater plants. Pesticides currently used in agriculture were detected at all locations. Hormones were not detected in the samples, but analysis using yeast screening assays found estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals at all locations their specific source is not yet known. Though they cannot identify a single chemical or group of chemicals responsible, the US FW and US GS have embarked on further studies.

Anish Jantrania, Ph.D., P.E, a former VDH employee, is a supporter of the clustered systems and today makes his living designing and operating those systems. I should give him the opportunity to counter the PECs recommendation against clustered systems, but as always Anish’s comments are way beyond my knowledge base, but he does state “It is important that Lab Sampling be required for ALL types of AOSS, large and small, at frequency that does not create undue financial burden on either type of AOSS… It’s all about Performance WITH Verification.” I like the philosophy which would allow the regulations to evolve with the knowledge base. However, I am still thinking about that, after all, for at least the single family homeowner the requirements of the Emergency Regulations are intended to ensure that these systems perform to protect public health and the waters of the Commonwealth of Virginia. For single family homes the typical homeowner cannot afford a gold plated regulatory system with every potential system and regulatory failure, monitored for, tested for, permitted and re-permitted on the homeowner’s nickel. As Todd elegantly points out, highly regulated point source generators, waste water treatment plants, may not provide adequate protection of the waters of the state from man. We as a state could not afford the infrastructure necessary to monitor and verify performance and operation, and the homeowner can only afford essential protections to protect public health and the environment, not those that make a regulator's life easier. The Department of Health needs to determine the reasonable compromises that will protect public health and the environment in a less than perfect world.

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