The Virginia General Assembly convened on Wednesday, January 11th 2012. The session in this even numbered year is 60 days and will end on March 11th. Buried in Committee and hopefully soon to wither and die is a little bill HB 1071 Onsite sewage systems that would exempt the owners of an alternative onsite sewage system, AOSS, installed prior to January 1, 2010 and serving a church or an owner occupied single-family home from the requirements for AOSS under State Board of Health regulations until July 1, 2014. In essence this bill would exempt the older AOSS systems from being properly maintained. The Emergency Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Regulations went into effect April 7, 2010 and were replaced by the final AOSS regulations on December 7th 2011. In the past two years homeowners received letters informing them of the requirements under the emergency regulations, and the requirements under the final regulations are almost the same as outlined by the Board of Health Letters sent to homeowners. At this point only irresponsible or ignorant homeowners are not properly maintaining their AOSS, and that is exactly who the regulations were written for.
Many Virginia home owners have both a private drinking water well and a septic system. To ensure a clean and healthy water supply both septic and well systems need to function properly. The most likely source of contamination to a drinking water well is a nearby septic system failure, and typically, the nearest septic system is your own, but can often by your neighbors. In 2003 EPA reported that 168,000 viral and 34,000 bacterial illnesses occur 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. If your home has a septic system of any type you are responsible for maintaining it. There are many different types of septic system designs, the AOSS systems were installed in soil that was ill suited to septic disposal. Ignored, these AOSS systems pose a threat to our drinking water and public health because the soils do not “perc.”
The “percolation rate” is the rate at which water moves through soil. The acceptable rates are between one minute and one hour per inch of soil. Take either more or less time for the water to pass through your soil and the natural soil is unsuitable for treatment of the waste water. If the water moves too slowly through the soil the leach field will flood with contaminated, foul smelling water or the water will back up into the house. If the water moves too quickly thought the soil the water will not be adequately treated and contaminate nearby ground or surface water. Alternative on-site sewage systems, AOSS, are the name given to waste treatment systems designed to adequately treat human waste without the help of adequate soil filtration.
One example of an AOSS is an aerobic system consists of a multi chamber tank or several tanks. After separation of solids in the first tank waste is forced through a filter into a second chamber or tank where air is pumped in to enhance aerobic bacteria which decomposes the organic material. The waste then flows into a third chamber or settling chamber which collects the bacteria and passes the liquid on to the leach field or drip field. Aerobic systems can remove more than 90% of the organic material and suspended solids within the tanks themselves, but require much more maintenance. Other type of AOSS include traditional septic tanks followed by treatment with tanks filled with peat, or sand mounds, or other soil absorption system that provide the secondary treatment. The problem is that alternative septic systems will not continue to function as designed without regular maintenance as my own experience and that of my neighbors has shown.
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 work and what is necessary to maintain them. In addition, people do not seem to be able take appropriate responsibility for their systems and anticipate consequences of neglect.
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 Virginia General Assembly eliminated that option when they passed the enabling legislation for the Emergency Regulations in 2009 session. The other method is to regulate, control and track. Establish system performance and monitoring and maintenance requirements, establish a tracking system and operating permits for compliance monitoring. As a society we collect taxes, we license, register, and inspect cars; now we license, register and inspect/maintain AOSS. Loudoun County began requiring homeowners to maintain their AOSS (as required under their operating permits) in 2009. Their regulations were replaced by the state Emergency Regulations in 2010 and the final AOSS regulations in 2011.
The final AOSS regulations list the homeowner responsibilities as section 140 of the regulations.
It is the owner's responsibility to do the following:
1. Have the AOSS operated and maintained by an operator;
2. Have an operator visit the AOSS at the frequency required by the permit (one or twice a year for single family systems);
3. Have an operator collect any samples required by this chapter (not required for “off the shelf” single family systems);
4. Keep a copy of the log of maintenance in electronic or hard copy form, make the log available to the department upon request, and make a reasonable effort to transfer the log to any future owner;
5. Follow the manufacturer’s O&M manual and keep a copy of the O&M manual in electronic or hard copy form for the AOSS, and make a reasonable effort to transfer the manual to any future owner; and
6. Comply with the onsite sewage system requirements contained in local ordinances adopted pursuant to the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act (§ 10.1-2100 et seq. of the Code of Virginia) and the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Designation and Management Regulations (9VAC10-20) when an AOSS is located within a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area (pump your tank at a minimum every five years).
These are the simple steps to maintain an AOSS and protect the source groundwater of the state. It is wrong to try to exempt the oldest and currently not maintained systems from the regulations for another two years. All citizen of the Commonwealth should insist that the General Assembly protect their drinking water.