BELLINGHAM - A Whatcom County Health Department plan for tougher enforcement of regulations on the county's 28,000 private septic systems got a skeptical reception from some County Council members Tuesday, July 24.
"This whole thing was overkill, as far as I'm concerned, from the start," council member Barbara Brenner said. "I don't want to hear more about enforcement."
Brenner has been a critic of the tougher rules first enacted in 2008 to comply with state law aimed at curbing sewage pollution. Those rules imposed inspection requirements on all county homeowners with septic systems. But in 2010, the council agreed to relax the enforcement of those requirements for most of Whatcom County. Homeowners now get a postcard informing them about the legal inspection requirement, but if homeowners ignore that postcard, nothing happens.
The only exceptions are in the Lake Whatcom and Drayton Harbor watersheds, where homeowners are given deadlines for getting inspections, and face a civil penalty of $500 if they ignore repeated warnings.
"By the time we get to civil penalties, there have been several notices - five or sometimes six," county environmental supervisor Kyle Dodd told council members.
Around the lake and Blaine's Drayton Harbor, the deadlines and warnings have helped motivate most homeowners to comply with the law, Dodd said. About 95 percent of the 665 septic systems around the lake have been inspected, along with 82 percent of the 3,087 in the Drayton Harbor area.
But for those homeowners in other areas who got no more than a postcard, the compliance rate is 22 percent, Dodd told the council. As a result, some failing systems continue to operate.
"Quite routinely, we still do find failing systems with straight-line pipes that discharge into roadside ditches," Dodd said.
Council member Sam Crawford said he has never been convinced that septic system problems are causing health or environmental problems serious enough to warrant the regulatory crackdown. He asked Dodd if the rigorous enforcement around the lake and Drayton Harbor has resulted in measurable improvement in water quality there.
Dodd said there was as yet no data to demonstrate that.
Council members also showed reluctance to impose an annual fee of $20 to $25 on all homes with septic systems, to be added to property tax bills. The county has the legal authority to do that under state law.
County Environmental Health Manager John Wolpers said the revenue was needed to cover the roughly $400,000 cost of the inspection program, and the fee would replace an existing $30 county fee for submitting inspection reports, as well as a three-cent-a-gallon tax on septic wastes that are pumped out from time to time by commercial operators.
Council member Bill Knutzen said he wanted to see a detailed breakdown of program expenses before he would be ready to talk about a new fee.
Council member Carl Weimer complained that people who have been observing the regulations and paying the existing fees would wind up paying double if the new fee were imposed in 2013. The $30 inspection fee is paid once every three years by owners of gravity flow systems.
Wolpers acknowledged that might be true in some cases.
Dodd said the septic system inspection program already operates at a $41,200 annual deficit, and that deficit will likely grow because the city of Bellingham plans to eliminate the $93,000 it has been contributing to cover the cost of enforcement around the lake, which is the city's water supply. State funds for the local program are also being phased out, Dodd added.
That got a rise from council member Pete Kremen.
"The state was thoughtful enough to allow us to tax our citizens for the money that they refuse to shell out for the mandate they handed down from on high," Kremen said.
Kremen also criticized the city for ending its financial support.
"It's their water system," Kremen said. "I understand their financial situation, but it makes it very difficult for us, because we are able to generate less tax than the city of Bellingham."
County Executive Jack Louws told the council that city officials believed their contribution to the inspection system was out of proportion, since the lake watershed contains only 2 percent of the septic systems in the county.
Louws told the council that the cost of the system needs to be confronted before the county puts together a 2013 budget. He asked the council to continue the discussion at another meeting, within a month or so.
"Ultimately we're mandated to run this program," Louws said. "It needs to be paid for."