Rules and Regs: Oregon Looks at Nitrogen in Onsite Rule Revision

Also in this month’s update, mandated sewer connections in one Florida city are blocked by state Supreme Court precedent

Rules and Regs: Oregon Looks at Nitrogen in Onsite Rule Revision

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After six years with its current set of onsite rules, the state of Oregon is on the verge of revising them to allow more alternative technology options and change how they are used. The broadest change targets nitrogen.

“We’re adding more nitrogen reduction,” says Randy Trox, onsite program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “We have some data that show our minimum lot size for sandy soils with unconfined aquifers isn’t adequately protective.” 

The DEQ proposal would increase the standard for rapidly draining soils. Instead of having one conventional system on each acre with such soil, the revised rule would specify no fewer than 2.5 acres. Current rules also allow a system such as pressure distribution or a sand filter on a half-acre property. Minimum lot sizes for other treatment systems would also change. In general, the new rule requires technologies that can reduce total nitrogen by 65%, Trox says.

The first 20 systems a manufacturer installs under this rule would have provisional approval and would have to be tested every other month, he says. If those tests show the systems meet the nitrogen standard, that technology would be added to the list of approved options. 

The largest impact of this proposed change would be on many lands in central Oregon, most lands along the state’s rivers and many properties along the Pacific Coast. Other proposed changes are less broad but aim to reduce headaches and costs.

Dispersal of treated wastewater is currently allowed only in 24-inch trenches, which includes chambers or EZflow by Infiltrator. Drip tubing — Geoflow and similar products — would become an option under revised rules. 

“We had an evaluation for Geoflow but didn’t have enough requests to complete the evaluation. But in looking around, a lot of other states have it, and no one is saying it doesn’t work. We think there’s a place for it here,” Trox says.

Major maintenance rules would change for the replacement of components such as distribution boxes. As long as a licensed onsite installer or certified maintenance provider does this work, there would be no need for a permit.

“The cost of the permit to replace a distribution box or drop box is almost equal to the cost of some work. A minor permit fee for replacing a tank or a drop box is probably around $400,” Trox says.

A new rule would place an end date on site evaluations. These are required when applying for permits for onsite work, and at the moment, evaluations are good forever. The proposed rule would place a 10-year expiration date on these, which is adequate time to develop a parcel of land, Trox says. If the rule is adopted, all existing evaluations would expire in 2030, and any evaluations after that would have a 10-year limit. This came up during the last rule-making process, and the DEQ is proposing it again with more input, he says.

“You go back to the ’70s and some of the paperwork is pretty thin. Counties can’t find where the site work was done. Trees grow up and get cut down. Lot sizes change a little bit,” Trox says. “Our current rules say you may not get the system the site was approved for, but you will get a system; and people argued this was inconsistently applied in different jurisdictions.”

The current rule revision process began in the fall of 2018 with the department’s advisory group that includes county representatives, pumpers, installers and manufacturer, among others.

The public hearing about the proposed changes is scheduled for Aug. 22 at 5 p.m. at the DEQ office in Eugene. People can call in by phone and submit written comments.

Public notification and outreach details were still being finalized when this column was being prepared. For the latest information, check the website for the rule-making.

The final proposed rules are scheduled for consideration at the November meeting of the state’s Environmental Quality Commission. New rules would take effect Jan. 2, 2020. 

South Florida Could See Stricter Regulations on Water Pollution

The new South Florida Water Management District may be heading to stricter limits on pollution of the state’s waters.

Pollution in Lake Okeechobee is coming from somewhere, according to Ronald Bergeron, one of the district board members appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March. “We’ve got to get a hold on where it’s coming from, and we need to monitor and regulate it before it enters state waters.” 

Removing pollution — especially nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer — is cheaper than cleaning it up later, he says, according to a report from the Treasure Coast Newspapers.

At the board’s May meeting, one member of the board asked whether there is monitoring to prove whether best management practices on farms are working. Vanessa Bessey, environmental administrator from the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, says farmers are not required to prove their practices are cleaning water before it leaves their land. If they implement a practice recognized by the state, there is an assumption that it meets standard, she says.

During the last few years, algae blooms have drawn much publicity, including a large one traced to water discharged from Lake Okeechobee. Although one study faulted septic systems as the primary cause of algae blooms in the state, most other experts dismissed this idea. They say septic systems may contribute, but they point out that Lake Okeechobee discharges a large amount of agricultural runoff.

The district is one of five in Florida. It manages the water resources in 16 counties from Orlando to the Florida Keys.

Mandated Sewer Connections in Hollywood, Florida, Blocked by Supreme Court Precedent

The plan to shift homes off septic systems ran into an obstacle in the city of Hollywood: The funding scheme is illegal.

About half of the city’s homes use onsite systems, and the city took out a $320 million bond to pay for the conversion, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The city had planned to bill current customers to finance the expansion, but a state Supreme Court ruling from 1976 says utilities cannot make current customers pay for a system that benefits new customers.

Under the plan blocked by the law, existing customers would have seen their monthly fees increase from about $27 to about $101. With their original source of money gone, city officials say they will search for grants to help offset the cost. 

Each property owner with a septic system still faces a cost of $7,000 to connect to the municipal pipes and abandon the existing tank. Owners have 90 days to connect to municipal sewer when it’s available, and even if they don’t, they’ll still receive a bill for service.

Michigan County Debates Opting Out of Onsite Point-of-Sale Inspections

Starting in April, county commissioners in Kalkaska County began debating whether to opt out of a regional Health Department rule that requires onsite systems to be inspected when a property is sold. As of early June, the debate was still going. 

In the most recent development, the county board chairman says he wants to hear from township leaders before the board acts. Town representatives were invited to a special meeting tentatively scheduled for mid-June.

Behind the board’s discussion are complaints about the cost of inspections — about $700, say news reports — and the additional cost to property sellers if they are required to upgrade a system. At the same time, some board members say they want a solution that doesn’t restrict inspections to only times when properties are sold, and they say there are so many exemptions to the current rule that it is ineffective.

Kalkaska County is near Lake Michigan on the northwestern side of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. 

County Ordinance in South Carolina Requiring Sewer Connections Is Tabled

An ordinance that could have required everyone in Charleston County to connect to municipal sewer pipes was put on hold by the County Council in May. 

The ordinance began as a way to help residents of a community who wanted sewer service without being forced to annex their properties to the neighboring municipality. But as written, the ordinance looks as if it could force everyone to connect to sewer pipes and looks as if it could require the extension of pipes across the county. 

That worried the local sewer utility, which didn’t know about the issue until it was covered by The Post and Courier newspaper. Conservationists were alarmed at the prospect of the urban sprawl that would follow the spread of municipal sewer. And citizens were concerned about the cost of building all those pipes and making all those connections.

Clearer Water in Minnesota Leads to Walleye Decline

Chalk up a few points for the benefits of wastewater regulation — unless you like catching walleye. A University of Minnesota study published in early May claims a reduction in human water pollution is part of the reason for a long-term decline in walleye numbers in Mille Lacs — a large lake about 96 miles north of Minneapolis. 

The other factor cited in the report was the presence of zebra mussels. This invasive organism — native to the Black, Azov and Caspian seas in western Asia — reproduces prolifically and is a powerful filter feeder.

Less pollution means the water is clearer, and walleyes do not thrive in bright light. Water clarity in the lake increased dramatically in the 1990s, probably due to control of fertilizer runoff and improved onsite systems, says the report. Mussels weren’t discovered in the lake until 2005.


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