Wastewater Professionals Fight Through Legislative Opposition To Protect The Environment

Ohio wastewater professionals fight through legislative opposition to advance onsite technology and protect the environment.

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The Ohio onsite wastewater industry was stuck in the 1970s for a long time. After several years of work, updated regulations passed in 2007 and breathed new life into the industry. But, unfortunately, the progress was short-lived when advances were quickly rescinded.

Today, the Ohio Onsite Wastewater Association (OOWA) is proceeding cautiously as another set of new rules became effective in January. Association President Karen Mancl is hopeful that the state now has regulations to protect the environment and allow wastewater professionals to use the latest knowledge and technologies.

Mancl, a founding member of OOWA 15 years ago, has served a couple of terms on the board of directors, and in January 2013 became president of the 160-member organization. She is also a professor of food, agricultural and biological engineering at Ohio State University and is its lead researcher in onsite wastewater treatment.

How was OOWA affected by the false start when the 2007 regulations were rescinded?

Mancl: When the rules were moving forward, OOWA membership was taking off. The rules included a continuing education requirement for installers for the first time so people were getting geared up and learning about the new technologies that would be allowed. The certification program for installers and training services were going great guns.

At Ohio State University, we built the University Soil, Environmental, Technology Learning Lab and were packing the house. The building at the learning center had a fire code limit of 40 people, and we were turning them away. We did a lot of field instruction, and you can’t teach a group that large, so we divided classes into groups of 10 and had four instructors presenting their material four times.

The bottom dropped out when the rules were rescinded. So did the membership of OOWA and attendance at the learning center. People started dropping classes, didn’t renew their memberships; OOWA was in a terrible, terrible situation financially. We lost a lot of money. We tried to keep the learning center active, but the university was losing money so we had to scale back.

It was a very frustrating time. OOWA had to drop our association with NOWRA because we couldn’t afford it, and we had to pull back on everything we were doing.

How did this all come about?

Mancl: The original 1977 rules were pretty much state-of-the-art for that time. Individual counties, we have 88 of them, could adopt rules that were stricter, and that’s what happened over the years because the state rules were out of date. Essentially, Ohio had 88 sets of rules. Anyone who worked across county lines was faced with very different requirements. It was really burdensome.

The Legislature passed a bill in 2005 to update the 1977 onsite regulations and require statewide uniformity. OOWA was instrumental in getting the legislation passed and had five official representatives on the 40-member State Department of Health advisory committee for the new rules. Several other members were on the committee representing other entities. It was a great opportunity for the industry.

The state always looked to the environmental health community and the university when it came to onsite issues. They might have a few installers on advisory boards, but there was nobody representing the entire industry. Most of our members are installers, and OOWA provides a voice for them. We also have designers, manufacturers, vendors, academics and regulators. We have a few pumpers as well, but they are well represented by the Ohio Waste Haulers Association, and we work well with that group.

The new rules went into effect Jan. 1, 2007. Unfortunately, there was a legislator in a powerful position who didn’t like them who attached a provision in the state budget rescinding the statute and the new rules. The budget was adopted July 1 so all the hard work went away and we reverted back to the 1977 rules.

There was one good thing that remained. The law had provided for a Technical Advisory Committee under the Department of Health and that remained in place. It is appointed by the governor and reviews proposals for new technologies that could not be used under the 1977 rules.

The TAC makes recommendations to the director of health who can issue special device approvals. Since 2007, 13 have been issued covering things like alternative leaching trenches, drip distribution, time-dosed sand filters, low-pressure sand bioreactors, spray irrigation and others. What was exciting for me as a teacher and researcher was that the first one approved in 2007 was mound systems. They were considered an experimental system until then, so now people could use the Ohio State University design manual that we based on research in Wisconsin and Ohio.

At least we had a mechanism to bring new technology forward.

The rest was sent back to square one, so what did you do?

Mancl: About 20 counties had adopted the new rules and kept them. Some went back to what they had before, and there was a group that was kind of in between. At least there was some progress.

We had to get a whole new state statute passed in 2010 and start over with new regulations. OOWA again sat on the advisory committee. The new rules were finally adopted and went into effect Jan. 1, 2015.

Among the provisions are a required site evaluation, vertical separation distances and ways to reduce them, maintenance requirements, bonding for installers, service providers and septage haulers, structural soundness of tanks and continuing education.

With new rules in place again, we are treading lightly. None of us are ready to jump right in and scale up again. We’re looking forward, but we’re being very careful. It’s an exciting time, but we’re nervous about getting burned again. There are still people actively opposing this latest set of new rules.

As a professor and lead researcher in onsite wastewater, what do you see in the future for the industry in Ohio and across the country?

Mancl: These are exciting times, and we have a lot of tools in our toolkit in terms of technologies. We’ve come a long way. I started in this field in the late ‘70s and my Ph.D. research at Iowa State was on onsite wastewater management. Some people see management as a cost; we see it as protecting people’s investment in their onsite systems. People are really starting to understand that we have to take care of them. We have a lot to look forward to in that and also in implementing new technologies in onsite wastewater treatment here and across the world. 


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