Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January 26, 2010 – Issue of the Week

Let’s talk poop!

Council members Barbara Brenner and Sam Crawford have introduced an ordinance to significantly weaken the septic system inspection requirements that have been in place for a couple of years now. We will have a public hearing on this proposal at our January 26th meeting, so I will try to provide enough background so you can make your mind up about this proposal. To be totally transparent here let me say right up front that I have already made my mind up about their proposal, and I think it stinks, which is quite appropriate for the subject.

Background – In 2005 and 2006 the state legislature and State Department of Health recognized that many marine areas of the state were being impacted by poorly maintained and failing septic systems. They passed legislation (RCW 70.188A) and rules (WAC 246-272A) to address this these problems by requiring local health jurisdictions and health officers to develop plans to protect our water resources by implementing, at a minimum, the state rules.

In response to these state mandates, and our own concerns about bacterial pollution in Lake Whatcom, Drayton Harbor, Portage Bay, etc the County Council did a major revision of our local septic system regulations to provide for the state required inventory and inspection of all septic systems in the county. The regulations that were ultimately passed went beyond the state’s inspection requirements by requiring that a licensed septic specialist do the initial inspection of each septic system. The Council majority at the time felt that such initial professional inspections were necessary to ensure that we received an accurate baseline of data on the location and operating status of the 30,000 estimated septic systems in the county. The Council also approved a Local Management Plan for Septic Systems (click here to download), which was approved by the State Department of Health.

The ordinance that Council members Brenner and Crawford have drafted is targeted at removing the professional inspection requirements and all ongoing inspections of any type. Click here to download their proposed ordinance and click here to see how that would change the county code. I believe this is mainly in response to the many complaints the county has received about the cost of these professional inspections ($140 - $300).

Discussion of Need – There is a substantial amount of scientifically collected data that supports the need to identify and reduce bacterial pollution coming from septic systems. Under the federal Clean Water Act the State Department of Ecology has initiated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) studies for Lake Whatcom, the Nooksack River, and Drayton Harbor because of fecal coliform pollution levels above water quality standards set to protect public health. Because of similar fecal coliform pollution levels Whatcom County has been required by state law to form shellfish protection districts in Drayton Harbor, Portage Bay and most recently Birch Bay to develop recovery plans to reduce the pollution. Fecal Coliform is just one type of bacteria, but its presence is an indication that other harmful types such as E. Coli and various viruses are also present. Fecal Coliform comes from a variety of sources with livestock being perhaps the main source throughout the county. Even so there is ample evidence that septic systems are a significant source. High levels of measured bacterial pollution in specific locations along Fishtrap Creek, Wildcat Cove, and the south shore of Drayton Harbor were all controlled when failing septic systems were identified and fixed. To help determine the source of bacterial pollution in Drayton Harbor DNA testing of the bacteria was done, and human fecal bacteria was found in 13 of the 24 sites tested in both the streams leading to the harbor as well as the harbor itself. Drayton Harbor may be the most studied area in the county, and a good deal of those studies and data are available on the Public Works website here.

Discussion of Cost – It is certainly true that there is a cost to people who have septic systems. The professional inspections run in the $140 - $300 range, and if you have to have your system pumped (normally every 3-5 years) that would be about an additional $300. Under our current rules for a normal gravity based septic system a person willing to take a free class and inspect their own system would have to pay the inspection fee once every nine years. Assuming they pump their system twice during that same time that amounts to an average worst case cost of $100/year. For someone who decides to have their system professionally inspected every three years (current inspection cycle) that cost would be $167/year. For comparison a person moving to the City of Blaine and paying for sewer service would average over $80/month or $960/year. Even if you amortize in the cost of replacing a septic system every 25 years ($15000/25 years = $600/year) these new inspection requirements aren’t particularly onerous compared to what the majority of citizens who live in our seven cities pay.

The County Health Department is working hard to come up with grant money to start a low interest loan program with Shore Bank so people who need to do costly repairs can get some financial assistance. This is certainly something that everyone would welcome. Anyone know how the cities help people who can’t pay their sewer bills?

That’s enough for one evening. I will try to add more in the coming days. Let me know what you think.


A couple of things that I forgot to mention yesterday.

First of all I did not state clearly that the ordinance that Council members Brenner and Crawford have introduced is clearly not legal. State regulations require ongoing inspections of septic systems in the county, and their proposed ordinance would remove this requirement so would be in conflict with state regulations. Not sure how they plan to make that align with the oath we all took to defend the laws of the State of Washington. I suspect when this is pointed out by staff or myself they will amend the proposed ordinance to only get rid of the professional inspection requirements instead of all inspection requirements. This will require the ordinance to be re-introduced and another hearing. Seems like two veteran council members should have vetted this better since they have been working on this for nearly a year now.

So ultimately this comes down to whether septic system owners should ever have to prove, by an independent inspection, that their systems are operating correctly. My belief is that most people will hire a professional anyway because they just won't want to deal with it themselves. Others would take the classes and do a fine job of inspecting their own systems. Unfortunately, there is evidence from other places that a large enough group of people will somehow fudge on the inspections to impact our local water quality.

For example, the Center for Watershed Management contains a great article from Urban Lake Management which states:

"After construction, long-term maintenance of the septic system is typically the responsibility of the individual homeowner. This is less than ideal, since studies have suggested that only about half of all septic owners maintain their systems according to recommended guidelines (i.e., annual inspection and pumpout of the septic tank every three to five years (Swann, 1999; Gomez et al., 1992)."

Other counties in Washington State who originally adopted regulations that did not require professional inspections are now considering amending their regulations to require such professional regulations because of what they consider significant numbers of homeowners not properly inspecting their systems.

Finally, there seems to be some belief that failing septic systems are only a concern near streams where bacterial pollution can cause restrictions to shellfish harvest. While that is a real concern it certainly is not the only one. We really only test for fecal coliform in our local waters, but the presence of human bacteria also indicates that a wide range of other chemicals known to be present in septic system are also being discharged into our local surface and groundwater. These chemicals can include a wide variety of chemicals from household products, heavy metals, caffeine, and pharmaceutical drugs. Failing systems in areas of drinking water wells can also lead to a variety of human diseases. For instance from the same article referenced above:

"Many reports of disease outbreaks are linked to ground water contamination by septic system effluent. In fact, effluent from septic systems is the most frequently cited source of ground water contamination leading to diseases such as acute gastrointestinal illness, hepatitis A, and typhoid (US EPA, 1986)"

This article is a great read and can be downloaded by clicking here.

**********UPDATE 1/23 ***********************

I have not really talked at all about what has been found here in the county during the first few years of inspections. As is spelled out in the Plan the inspection program has been phased in slowly starting in marine areas most at risk from bacterial pollution. The Health Department started with the Drayton Harbor watershed in 2007 because it is designated as a Marine Recovery Area. From there the program was implemented in Birch Bay, Chuckanut Bay, Lummi Island and Point Roberts. To date 6,277 septic systems have been inspected out of an estimated 30,000 systems.

Since the program started in Drayton Harbor that area probably has the highest percentage of systems inspected at just over 70%. Of the 2170 systems inspected there, about 71% passed the inspections, about 25% needed maintenance, and 2.8% systems were failing. These numbers represent good news for Draton Harbor since an inspection program along the shores of Drayton Harbor ten years earlier had a significantly higher failure rate. There is some speculation about how the numbers for the remaining 30% (800-900 systems) of the systems will come in. Have these people not yet responded because they have missed the multiple notices, don't have the money, or know they have problems?

County-wide over 6000 systems have been inspected so far. The overall percentages are: 65% passed, 31 % needed maintenance, 4% were faling. Here is a chart:
A 4% failure rate may seem pretty insignificant, but remember there are many examples of a single failing system dramatically affecting water quality. Those 247 failing systems represent tanks that probably hold at least 247,000 gallons of human sewage. A very general rule of thumb is that for each person in the house about 100 gallons/day goes down the drain. If 2 people live in each of those 247 houses with failing systems that amounts to over 18 million gallons of sewage a year that may not be getting treated correctly. If that same failure rate of 4% holds true across the entire county, that would amount to over 85 million gallons of poorly treated sewage each year!

I received some interesting comments and great suggestions for improvements to this program from a licensed septic system designers earlier today. He was a member of the advisory committee to the Board of Health when this program was first starting to be designed. You can download his comments by clicking here.

**********UPDATE 1/27/10**************

At the Council meeting last night Council member Brenner said that the ordinance that she and Council member Crawford introduced back in November, (and that a number of advisory committees and government agencies had spent significant time reviewing and commenting on), was not the ordinance that she had meant to bring forward. She had a new version she wanted to work off of (click here to download it), which is actually better. The County attorney made it clear that the Council could not pass the new version since it was significantly different than what had been out for public review, and that it would have to be introduced and another public hearing held. So we had the pleasure of setting through a couple of hours of raucous testimony about septic system programs for the wrong ordinance that everyone agreed was illegal and could not be passed.

When that was done the Council majority wanted to pass an interim ordinance making the professional inspections go away. Again the County attorney had to tell them that was not legal. At that point the Health Department stood up and spoke on behalf of the County Administration that they could just administratively quit enforcing those provisions of the septic rules until the Council majority could figure out what they really wanted and pass it legally. There was a motion from the Council to direct the Health Department to quit enforcing the professional inspection provisions of the septic ordinance, and that passed 5-2 with Ken Mann and myself opposed.

So, at one of our next meetings we get to start again on this re-write of the septic ordinance, and then get to have another public hearing to gather input. To the Shellfish Protection District advisory committees, the Marine Resource Committee, the City of Blaine, the Department of Ecology and others who took time to review the science and write comments on this mistakenly introduced ordinance I would have to say save your breath next time around. In the meantime, I'm heading out to buy some new knee high rubber boots and maybe a pitchfork.


  1. While I appreciate you rational arguments and the references you provide, I fear it is lost on BB and Crawford. They have been churning this mess for three years and still can't put together an ordinance consistent with state law let alone consistent with protecting the heatlt of the people of Whatcom County.

    The action they are proposing will be voted on by the Whatcom County Health Board. Unfortunately they are on the Health Board. The proposal goes against the recomendtaions of the Health Department. Our County Executive oversees the Heath Department. Perhaps he will back his staff and veto this ordinance.

  2. Carl, first of all I appreciate your willingness to serve on the Council and your involvement in RESources, WRIA, the Pipeline Safety Trust, etc. I've lived in urban and rural locations in Whatcom County for about 35 years. My liberal and progressive instincts, beliefs, and involvement have been tempered somewhat by the arrogance of some activists, and by the divide(s) between rural and urban residents. Ironically, sometimes they are relative newcomers themselves, sometimes relatively comfortable financially, sometimes living in rural areas they now want to protect from newcomers, or urban areas - so they don't have to deal first hand with issues like wells, septics, land stewardship. I think the septic situation provides a good example of the arrogance. Why not get a septic loan/grant program going BEFORE enacting the inspection system, make sure the Health Department has the resources and personnel needed? Why not provide a process for drinking water and sewers systems rather than wells and septics? ...Probably in part because nominal liberals and progressives fear that would facilitate development and population growth...and now that they are here they are hostile to providing for newcomers or even internal growth...'course its not that simple, there are also many native and long-time residents who want growth managed carefully...and too, a unified system of water and sewers (and schools, police and fire protection, etc.) riles a lot of folks who value local control of everything and low, low real estate taxes (so we get few services and constant increases in the regressive sales taxes.) Oh, well, we will get there eventually. Thanks for your service Carl.

  3. I really appreciate the links you've provided to original sources, Carl. Makes it easy to get up to speed on an issue quickly and efficiently. Thanks for doing such a good job keeping an eye on the big picture of our County environment. It's much appreciated!

  4. thanks again Carl for this informative discussion. It reinforces what a no brainer this septic inspection plan is. Armed with the knowledge that one failed system can do so much damage and that one's own children and grandchildren's health can be on the line, I can't imagine why anyone would be doing anything but trying to make the inspections a top priority. And considering that the cost is so significantly less than the urban cost of flushing, I am puzzled by the resistance. I have to ask "have we become that selfish?" The cost of making sure our septic systems are working the way they are designed to should be something us septic users should be glad to do for the health of all.
    peggy borgens

  5. Another stinky aspect of this issue is the actual language of the proposed ordinance itself. To justify this proposed action, the ordinance asserts such ridiculous things as "overall water quality of Whatcom County is improving" and that "all new OSS sytems that are installed are extremely well regulated, engineered and designed, and monitored." An elected official who, in good faith, was willing to sign an ordinance containing these assertions, would have to extremely poorly informed.

  6. While it is understandable for you to be discourages and fed up, Carl, I urge you not to give up.

    It is not a waste of time for folks to appear in front of the Council to deliver their views... if for no other reason than because you are there to listen.

    As frustrating as having to appear before the Council again may be, I hope that all of the folks who stood and spoke in defense of the public health and the protection of the environment will consider speaking again at the next hearing when this issue is raised yet again.

    Doing the right thing is rarely satisfying in the short run.

    Don't stop now.