Health department proposes changes to septic rules

Published on Wed, Aug 1, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Whatcom County Health Department officials are floating changes to septic system regulations that could mean stiffer enforcement for septic-system owners countywide, but some Whatcom County Council members are skeptical of the new direction.

The proposal is a result of fewer sewer system evaluations being submitted, county health department director Regina Delahunt said. The drop in evaluations coincided with a 2010 shift in county septic system ordinance that allowed individual homeowners to inspect their own systems after taking a class and pulled back health department enforcement from all watersheds except Drayton Harbor and Lake Whatcom.

“[The county’s] thinking was that people, given the opportunity, will do the right thing,” Delahunt said.

Prior to the 2010 ordinance, the health department was in the process of rolling out enforcement measures countywide that involved sending a series of letters with staggered deadlines to homeowners who had not submitted evaluations, which culminated in a $500 fine if the final submittal deadline was not met, Delahunt explained. Health department staff were already engaging in this level of enforcement in the Drayton Harbor and Lake Whatcom watersheds because those water bodies are particularly sensitive to stormwater runoff polluted by malfunctioning septic systems.

The 2010 ordinance, however, relaxed these requirements for all areas except Drayton Harbor and Lake Whatcom and directed health department staff to send postcards, with no follow-up letters, to septic system owners reminding them of the system evaluation requirements. 

County code requires gravity-fed septic systems to be inspected every three years and all other types of systems, which includes those with pumps and other mechanical equipment, be inspected once a year.

Two years after relaxing enforcement, officials say the submittal rate has dropped to 22 percent, down from 66 percent prior to 2010. Delahunt said these figures support the case for stiffer enforcement and clear deadlines.

Because of this, health department officials are proposing a return to the tougher approach and to impose a $25 annual fee for each septic system owner. With approximately 28,000 septic systems in the county, as much as $700,000 per year could be collected for maintenance and enforcement operations.

The fee would replace the current $35 evaluation report submittal fee and 3 cent per gallon surcharge collected from septic system pumping companies. Delahunt said the proposed blanket annual fee would be fairer to compliant septic system owners.

“With [the current] fees, you’re charging the people who are doing the right thing,” she said.

Health department officials proposed the annual fee, in part, to make up a possible 50 percent decrease in revenue for maintenance and operations over the next few years. Current program expenses are more than $408,000 annually, while fees bring in $370,000. Delahunt said the department would still allow homeowners to inspect their own systems after taking a class.

The health department gets a total of $183,000 in revenue assistance from the state and the city of Bellingham, but those sources are not guaranteed past 2014. Delahunt said the septic system maintenance and operations program is mandated by the state and needs to be funded.

Since 2008, 11,779 septic systems countywide have been evaluated, mostly by certified inspectors. Of these evaluations, 62 percent were rated as satisfactory, 35 percent as “maintenance needed,” and 3 percent as failing.

County council members remain somewhat skeptical

Despite health department officials’ concerns, Whatcom County Council members remain skeptical of the need for changes. Barbara Brenner, a proponent for relaxing enforcement in 2010, said she wants to see how the money would be spent. Brenner expressed confidence that owners are maintaining their systems and suggested that positive responses were more appropriate than regulations.

Brenner also wanted more health department focus on the inspection classes and more information on how much they cost. She said classes allow people to keep up their systems without tying up staff time on enforcement.

Carl Weimer said even though fellow council members are skeptical, he supports the department’s proposal. Weimer said he applauds the classes, but thinks professional inspections still have a role.

“I think the jury’s still out on whether home inspection is adequate enough, but getting that first step is a good thing,” Weimer said.

Weimer has generally favored stiffer enforcement and voted against the 2010 change that relaxed the requirements. He said the county has a state mandate and thinks the health department’s current proposal is a good mix of enforcement and individual homeowner involvement.

“There’s a state law, and we need to abide by state law,” Weimer said. “I think we’ve come up with a fairly good compromise.”