Thursday, November 12, 2009

Virginia’s Emergency Alternative Onsite Septic System Regulations Comments 2

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. The comments and emergency regulations were posted on the VDH website for your review (they have since been taken down). 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.

Amelia McCulley of Albemarle County states that enforcement of noncompliance will be critical. The Emergency Regulations read:
“The Board, commissioner, and Department may use any lawful means to enforce this chapter, including voiding a construction or operation permit, imposition of civil penalties, or criminal prosecution.”

To ensure the successful implementation of the Emergency Regulations, the regulations need to be clear in the operating requirements for homeowners and the failure to comply with the operating requirements requires clearly spelled out appropriate fines and penalties the department of health is willing and able to invoke. Criminal prosecution of a homeowner for lack of an Operation and Maintenance contract is unlikely to be pursued. Therefore, As Amelia points out the necessary staffing, tools and procedures will need to be in place to assure that enforcement can occur as needed.

Ted McCormack of the Virginia Association of Counties strongly endorses the provisions of 12VAC5-613-110 that require all AOSS owners to maintain an ongoing relationship with an state-licensed AOSS operator, and further, to have the AOSS visited on a regular basis… In addition, current and prospective staffing reductions at local health departments mean that regular operator visits of AOSS by licensed professionals may be the only way the commonwealth will ever know that the systems are functioning properly. “ He concludes that the protections, the performance and laboratory sampling and monitoring provisions must not be weakened under any circumstances, and in some instances, should be increased. His argument is that the costs of maintaining, monitoring and regulating the AOSSs should be born by the property owner.

Scott York of Loudoun County supports annual maintenance and inspection requirements. “Unlike traditional septic tanks, AOSS are complex machines with components that must be properly maintained in order to continue functioning according to system design. Annual operator inspection reports filed with the health department will not only ensure that each AOSS is properly functioning, but it will also lead to improved maintenance as problems are identified during the required site visit and pointed out to the homeowner. Annual inspections and better routine maintenance will decrease the incidents of catastrophic system failures, which can cost many thousands of dollars to fix.” Because the costs of repairing a complete system failure are so high, Loudoun County goes on to suggest the Health Department to develop a requirement for the owner, designer, installer, manufacturer or operator to post a performance bond or other form of financial surety in order to cover the costs of major system failures in the event that routine maintenance and inspections are not enough to prevent such failure.

For the single family homeowner the requirements of the Emergency Regulations are about, ensuring and 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, and insured against on the homeowner’s nickel. As was pointed out by the PEC, even 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 be monitor and verify performance and operation, and the homeowner can not afford it all. The Department of Health needs to determine the reasonable compromises that will protect public health and the environment in a less than perfect world. Controlling the density of septic systems and the required inspections and maintenance will go a long way in ensuring the protection of public health and the waters of the state. It is a start.

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