Home on the Range

Vastness of the state challenges the Nebraska On-Site Waste Water Association’s efforts to advance industry professionalism, affect regulations.
Home on the Range
Tony Mendes may be reached at 308/631-9695 or amendes@actcom.net.

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Wide-open spaces and sparsely populated regions challenge the growth of the Nebraska On-Site Waste Water Association (NOWWA). Although 12 years old, it still grapples with basic challenges overcome by associations in other parts of the country.

The nation’s 16th largest state in total area, Nebraska is 415 miles across and 205 miles north to south, with the majority of the 1.8 million residents living in the east. Populations in western counties average less than 1,000 to 6,000. Although the situation has improved, the onsite industry in those areas continues to resist regulations and shun efforts by the association to improve levels of professionalism.

Regulatory or educational achievements haven’t come easily. Few in the industry saw the need for an association until 2001, when the state Department of Environmental Quality was revising the septic code. Some 80 members from across the state formed NOWWA, then worked with the University of Nebraska, the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association and others to create an aggressive agenda for legislative change.

Charter member and past NOWWA president Tony Mendes of Tony Mendes Excavating and Honey Wagon Express in Scottsbluff, Neb., talked with Onsite Installer about the association’s victories and continuing efforts to retain a voice in legislative issues.

Installer: What major changes did the association contribute to the 2004 revised regulations?

Mendes: To put our accomplishments in perspective, the DEQ has yet to approve any advanced treatment technologies not submitted by a licensed engineer. Against this background, the new onsite wastewater laws made Nebraska the 48th or 49th state to approve gravelless chambers. They also required contractor certification, registering systems with the department’s monitoring and reporting program, and establishing the Onsite Wastewater Advisory Committee. Five industry professionals sit on the 11-member committee.

It’s important to note that the DEQ does not issue installation permits. County Building and Zoning Departments do, but only 12 or 14 counties out of 93 have one, and most of those counties are in eastern Nebraska.

Installer: How receptive was the DEQ to your suggestions?

Mendes: That was one of our initial problems. Contractors in extremely rural counties have been slow to accept the wave of professionalism sweeping through other areas. Their resistance fuels the agency’s negative stereotype of the industry. Consequently, we must continually prove ourselves. At meetings, I have to remind people that our work has a genuine impact on the environment – Nebraska sits on an enormous aquifer – and the public’s health. Recognition has been a big hurdle. Fortunately, as real estate begins to move again, we’re seeing more lender and consumer awareness of onsite issues. They don’t want to be stuck with a bad system, and are turning to the association and DEQ for guidance and information.

Installer: Did installers object to the registration fee?

Mendes: Yes, but they just added the $50 to the homeowner’s invoice. However, four years into the program, the DEQ went before the Environmental Quality Council for permission to increase the fee to $200. A department representative asked me to approve it on behalf of NOWWA, but I had no authority to do so nor did I approve of the proposal. So I drove 396 miles to Lincoln for six weeks over three and a half months meeting with stakeholders, testifying before the council and opposing the increase on behalf of the homeowners and industry. In the end, we begrudgingly agreed to $140 under the condition that the fee be revisited in two years.

The irony and our frustration lay in department officials having no evidence to support the increase and even admitting they didn’t know what the fee should be. The monitoring program gave them a general idea of how many onsite systems were in the state. However, we know not all installers are registering new systems. Our suspicion was the fee would generate a cash cow. Two years later, we were informed that the registration program did indeed have excess cash.

Installer: Did the rate increase the number of unregistered systems?

Mendes: There appeared to be less of it than anticipated. On the positive side, the cash presented an opportunity for us to open a discussion on enforcement. While the DEQ is supposed to be the enforcement arm, it has insufficient staff to do so. There are three people monitoring the onsite program, but the time they spend on it is equivalent to one and a half full-time workers. Consequently, the department wants counties to handle compliance but, as mentioned before, only a handful have building and zoning departments.

That raises another of our frustrations – unfunded mandates. The DEQ resists our enforcement efforts because it doesn’t have the staff, and local entities have no money for enforcement. The result is sporadic enforcement at best. Even some larger counties chose not to participate because they aren’t reimbursed by the state.

What we have is a voluntary compliance program in the barest sense.

Installer: Why don’t some members get inspector certifications and the DEQ deputize them?

Mendes: We made that suggestion a year ago. Officials are only now investigating what is possible. We do have some certified onsite inspectors, but the department hasn’t recognized them. We’re willing to do anything to expand the enforcement presence, but we need to do it legally, while protecting our inspectors from liability just like government agents.

What we need is a presence and some enforcement activity to drive home the fact that people are monitoring contractors’ work. If there’s no fear of reprisal, than there is no compliance.

Installer: How much did NOWWA contribute to the August 2012 revised regulations?

Mendes: We accomplished some key goals. First, master installers can qualify to design and install mound systems. Second, it’s easier for installers to submit an application for alternative technology. Before, any design beyond a very basic gravity system required an engineer. Today, alternative technology applications still go through an engineering review, but engineers work more closely with manufacturers to clarify the technical data instead of reinventing the wheel.

Third, because the DEQ doesn’t restrict the inclusion of septic additives, we convinced officials to treat the RetroFAST from Bio-Microbics as one, instead of [as] a component. Our precedence was other states with such a regulation. That was a huge step in providing our industry with a drainfield remediation tool that was previously unavailable.

Installer: Why did the association need to hire an executive director?

Mendes: Because asking volunteers to run back and forth across the state burns them out. We hired Lee Orton in 2001 because he is a licensed lobbyist who helped the association with several regulatory proceedings. We also knew legislative issues were coming that we weren’t qualified to handle. Lee’s done an outstanding job.

Installer: What are the organization’s goals for 2013 and beyond?

Mendes: Increase enforcement activity. It’s one of the biggest obstacles in the state and to membership expansion. Members want their association to look out for their interests. Enforcement is the most immediate and the one at which we are weakest.


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