Thursday, January 20, 2011

Custom Designed Alternative Septic and Department of Health Oversight

Mark D. Obenshain, Virginia State Senator for the 26th District has introduced a bill Senate Bill #1277 in the current session of the Virginia General Assembly: “Professional engineering of onsite treatment works; Department of Health oversight.”

This bill contains several provisions restricting the Department of Health's oversight of the requirements for and the review of onsite sewage systems custom designed by professional engineers. The Virginia Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, VOWRA, is opposed to the passage of this bill. Some VOWRA members feel it is an attempt to circumvent the regulations on horizontal setbacks and performance requirements for alternative onsite sewage systems, AOSSs. These physical separations are the last defense of my well and my property from a poorly designed and maintained alternative onsite sewage system on a neighbor’s property. By reducing the authority of the Department of Health to maintain these separations this bill threatens drinking wells with contamination from other properties and is entirely counter to the provisions of the Virginia Watershed Implementation Plan and good stewardship.

Septic is a non-consumptive use of water, the water is returned to the earth. It is important that the septic system or AOSS is designed and operated in a way that protects the environment. Whatever goes down the toilet or the drain goes into the earth. Research performed over a decade ago in Dutchess County, NY and North Carolina demonstrated that minimum lot size, vertical and horizontal separations were the controlling factors to maintaining water quality. Adequate dilution, soil filtration and time are necessary to ensure sustainable water quality. Maintaining the horizontal and vertical separation of all septic and AOSS systems is the last protection of the drinking water supply from septic contamination and allows for weather and use irregularities in operation of septic systems and AOSSs.

In recent sessions the General Assembly has passed several bills amending septic requirements. HB 2551/SB 1486 provided that: AOSS designs submitted by professional engineers to the Virginia Department of Health are required to ensure that the treatment works will meet or exceed the standard discharge, effluent, and surface and ground water quality standards for standard commercial systems tested and demonstrated by the industry and permitted in Virginia under Health Department regulations.

My libertarian streak would love to believe that homeowners would care for their septic systems appropriately to avoid the system backing 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. Unfortunately, many homeowners are unaware of how septic systems works and what is necessary to maintain them. In addition, people do not seem to be able take appropriate responsibility for their systems without some sort of enforcement or the regulations and the current regulations have no penalties or consequences and so far the public seems unaware of them. Thus, the last defense of neighboring properties and drinking water supplies are the horizontal and vertical setbacks.

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