Thursday, December 24, 2009

Misplaced Priorities at the Virginia Department of Health

The final version of the Emergency Regulations for Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems (AOSS) is posted at the Department of Health web site and can be downloaded for your perusal.

Still contained in the final version is the requirement that single family alternative onsite sewage systems be sampled every five years. This gives the appearance of the emergency regulations that serve to ensure enrichment of the septic service companies and department of health data gathering project. The regulations require two year contacts and basically tie the homeowner to an extremely limited pool of service providers. My own service provider just informed me that his contact rates have gone up almost 25% to meet the requirements of the new regulations and does not include sampling. The requirement for testing is a waste of the homeowner’s money and the inflexibility of the regulations will not serve to better protect public health and the environment. To work regulations must be effective, clear and not overly burdensome.

The proposed requirement for sampling and analysis by single family homeowners at a single point in time is misleading and it has no scientific value beyond data gathering. Results from a single test would normally vary in a range around the design parameters and so are statistically misleading and not representative of sound sampling methods. The Department of Health is using this requirement to data gather on the homeowner’s nickel. There are no standards for the sample results.

Perhaps I am wrong and the Department of Health intends to use the design parameters of the system as sampling standards. Let’s walk through this. If the system “failed” to meet the design parameters the next steps would be to make adjustments to the use or operation of the system. Then, to verify that these changes had the desired result, the system would be retested, again at the home owners expense to verify effluent within the design parameters. How many rounds of testing would be required to determine that the “average” parameter was met? Or would the Department of Health simply ignore the results and allow the systems to continue to operate until the next five year sample date? In real life there will be variability in performance. At what cut off does the VDH take enforcement action, or require further investigation? Without these answers a sampling program can be no more than data gathering.

All of the approved AOSS systems were demonstrated to perform satisfactorily to meet the requirements of the Commonwealth. Operation and maintenance of these AOSS systems by professional operators (or trained homeowners) ensures that a single family home (low volume) unit is functioning properly. These are not very complicated systems, they contain tanks, pumps and filters and natural process of bacteria breaking down the waste. As an experienced chemical engineer I know that a single sample once every five years would be misleading. Testing of a septic system operation at a single point in time can be impacted by volume, load, temperature and humidity and is not representative of overall performance. These systems do not have controlled sample ports and the field workers servicing single family homes have no sampling training and under the regulations are not required to have any form of license. Temperature and pressure will not be recorded, temperature will not be controlled during hold and delivery, and sampling will be unprofessional. There are no standards for appropriate sampling of a septic system. Nonetheless, I will be charged hundreds of dollars. In addition, the results of the single sampling event can be easily manipulated by adding a large quantity of clean water from the garden hose to the location being sampled. In my case, simply adding water to the third tank will ensure that the data obtained is entirely worthless. Such a single sample test would never have been adequate by itself to get an AOSS approved for use.

What is even more annoying than paying for the data gathering efforts of the Department of Health is their failure to put their first priority on the primary duty of protecting public health and the environment. If they wanted to do something useful they could test private drinking water wells annually. This data would ensure the public health and could identify failing or failed AOSS and traditional septic systems that had impacted groundwater. However, the massive costs of this would be visible and the pain of the cost felt by the public. At least, the groundwater of the Commonwealth could be carefully tracked. The Virginia Department of Health does not require homeowners to test their drinking water wells annually or even every five years. There is no logic behind the requirement that I should be spending hundreds of dollars to have some septic operation company sample and then send for analysis a sample from my third septic tank, but does not require me to ever pull a sample from the faucet of my house. Evidently, the Department of Health regulatory process was very influenced by the input from the industry.

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