Wednesday, July 9, 2008

County moves to regulate septic systems

Ordinance passed in 2007 requires new rules for managing wastewater systems

Express Staff Writer

The estimated 3,600 septic systems that exist throughout Blaine County could come under increased county scrutiny if Blaine County officials have their way. Officials are writing new rules to manage such tanks, many of which are in sensitive watersheds.

The rules could be implemented within a year as part of a pilot program that would target select septic systems in the county that are near watersheds the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has deemed environmentally impaired. Further down the road, the county would expand the program to all septic systems.

The transition to a full-fledged inspection program—perhaps as often as each year—is a far cry from the current situation, where little oversight takes place. To help ease the transition, the county is considering a stakeholders' task force comprised of private landowners and those involved in the business of managing septic systems. County officials hope to have the task force in place within a month.

Under rules being considered, violators of the inspection standards could face stiff penalties. Violators would unable to secure an annual discharge permit, which allows septic systems to operate.

"If you were in violation of our ordinance you would not get a permit the next year," said county Water Quality Manager Meredith Warren.

The program would be funded by fees imposed on lots with septic systems.

If a workshop held Tuesday to discuss the rules being developed is any indication, county officials are aware the changes may concern many county residents, primarily from the standpoint of cost.

So, that's where the stakeholders' task force and an extensive public outreach and educational program will come into play, said Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen.


"I'm just really interested in helping people adjust to the program," he said.

Given proper notice, Schoen said county residents will back the program. He said past county surveys have indicated the public supports actions taken to protect water quantity and water quality in Blaine County.

"I think the public will be pleased," he said.

The drive to create new rules governing septic system management in the county stems from a new wastewater management ordinance the County Commission approved last November. The ordinance states that the new septic system oversight program will happen and mandates that rules governing a regular inspection program be created.

Of the 3,600 septic systems thought to exist throughout the county, 1,000 are on parcels of land believed to have a system, but for which minimal to no information is presently available to confirm its type, age and status, county documents indicate.

It's issues like these that have convinced county leaders to tackle what will surely be a complicated task of creating a program to manage the thousands of septic systems.

The alternative—not inspecting septic systems and possibly losing the clean water that pours out of local taps—is not an option, said Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman.

"It's something that we really take for granted," Bowman said.

One major question mark that still must be answered—one with potentially serious legal ramifications for the county—is how inspectors may gain access to private property to make sure septic systems are working in an environmentally-safe manner. One possibility would be to reach access agreements with the homeowners allowing inspectors to access properties during a short period of time during the year.

The county hasn't determined if it will hire inspectors to conduct septic system inspections or contract the work out with private businesses. Further research by the county will look at whether faulty septic tanks are in violation of state and federal groundwater regulations.

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