Thursday, January 27, 2011

HB 2492 Proposes an Amendment to Alternative Septic and Homeowner Responsibilities

Timothy D. Hugo, member of the Virginia General Assembly for the 40th District (Centerville) has introduced a bill HB 2492 in the current session of the Virginia General Assembly: “Onsite sewage systems; certain owners may be exempt from requirements for operation and maintenance.”

This bill contains several provisions restricting the scope and applicability of the new Alternative Onsite Sewage System, AOSS, regulations and the recently implemented Emergency AOSS regulations. The bill would exempt AOSSs installed prior to January 1, 2010, with flows of less than 1,000 gallons per day serving a single-family, owner occupied dwelling from the requirements for the operation and maintenance of the system. In addition, the bill would prevent local autonomy in deciding if these systems can be installed and need to be maintained as recommended by the manufacturer, as currently required by the Department of Health in individual counties. By reducing the authority of the Department of Health and counties to require the maintenance of AOSSs 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.

Let’s look at how requiring operation and maintenance might protect public health and the environment. A real world example would be a geologically unfavorable groundwater rich location. The small development where I live is located within the northeast quadrant of the Culpeper basin in Prince William County. Groundwater flows under ambient pressure from Bull Run Mountain towards Bull Run, the river flowing west to east. The soils in our neighborhood are described by the USGS as Balls Bluff Siltstone with a gravel, sand and clay type bedding plane. (That is the technical name for the flat plane, edged orange red rocks that are everywhere you put a shovel.) In the siltstone bedding plane, the fractures within the rock run predominately north south. Thus while ground water flows generally speaking west to east, water or a contaminant that catches a fracture will carry the contaminant to drinking water depth in a north south pattern. Contaminants can enter the groundwater at these fractures and zigzag through the neighborhood. There is no natural attenuation in a fractured system. Any malfunctioning septic system, improper disposal, or spill on any property has the potential to impact the drinking water well of other residents to the south, southeast or east.

The alternative septic regulations require me and all my neighbors to properly operate and maintain our AOSSs. This will hopefully prevent the neighbor’s septic system from contaminating the drinking water wells in the neighborhood. (I already have an operation and maintenance contract and my septic alarms to an automatic dialer to the maintenance company and my e-mail.) A cracked septic tank, malfunctioning system, improper management of stables, dumping of chemicals down the drain or in the yard, all have the potential to impact large sections of the neighborhood and need to be diligently guarded against by all residents to protect or drinking water supply. Unfortunately, many homeowners are unaware of how septic systems work and what is necessary to maintain them. Their wish to be exempted from the septic regulations is so that they can ignore problems instead of taking appropriate responsibility for their systems without some sort regulations and enforcement. The proper operation and maintenance AOSS would serve to ensure the proper operation of these AOSSs and serve to protect neighboring properties and drinking water supplies from contamination.

The need to negotiate the best rates for AOSS contracts may offer the opportunity for the home owners to create a buying group and educate their neighbors. This could serve to protect all our drinking water. That remains to be seen; in the meantime I will be testing my water twice a year.

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