BELLINGHAM - Whatcom County is backing away from tougher countywide enforcement of septic system inspection laws, but all septic system owners are likely to face a new annual fee of $19 or $20 beginning in 2013.
The new fee would replace existing county fees now tacked onto bills that homeowners pay private companies for inspections and pumpouts, and homeowners already complying with the law could wind up paying less in some cases, according to Whatcom County Health Department Director Regina Delahunt.
The money collected from septic system owners would be used only to pay for the county's costs of regulating septic systems to comply with state and local laws.
At a Tuesday, Sept. 25, committee discussion, a majority of County Council members approved the fee proposal from Delahunt and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws.
Delahunt and Louws asked council to approve a $19 fee, but council members Kathy Kershner and Carl Weimer suggested raising it to $20 to make the department's septic system oversight program completely self-supporting.
The extra dollar would eliminate a $25,000 transfer into the program from the Public Works Department. Louws said he would consider the $20 proposal and bring it back as an option before council members take a vote to adopt the new fee.
Starting in 2013, the annual fee would be added to property tax bills sent to the estimated 28,000 households with their own septic systems, raising more than $500,000 a year. That is what it already costs the county to regulate septic systems.
Louws and Delahunt told the council the county needs the new fee for two reasons:
The city of Bellingham and the state are eliminating a total of $200,000 in annual support for the county's program, beginning in 2013.
Most county homeowners with septic systems are ignoring legal requirements to have their systems inspected, and that means they don't pay a $35 county inspection processing fee that is added to the private inspector's bill.
If the county does not begin to charge every septic system owner a fee, the inspection fees charged to those who do get inspections would have to be raised above $100, or the Health Department's costs would have to be covered with money from the county's general fund that is used for a wide range of public services, Louws told the council.
The county does enforce the inspection law strictly in the Lake Whatcom watershed and around Drayton Harbor. That's because the lake is Bellingham's drinking water, and Drayton Harbor shellfish growing has been disrupted by pollution from defective septic systems and other sources.
In both of those areas, homeowners who ignore the law receive stern warning letters and eventual fines of up to $500 if they fail to have their systems inspected.
As a result, compliance with the law is now at 82 percent around Drayton Harbor, and 95 percent around the lake, according to Delahunt's report.
Elsewhere in the county, homeowners get a letter informing them of the inspection law, but there are no legal consequences for ignoring it. The result: Fewer than 40 percent of homeowners are getting inspections.
As some council members see it, a few leaky septic tanks elsewhere in the county are not causing enough of a public health threat to warrant a strict enforcement system. Many county residents have voiced heated opposition to the new rules and the expense involved in inspecting and, if necessary, repairing their systems.
On Tuesday, council member Sam Crawford asked Delahunt if she could prove that failing septic systems were a hazard to public health. Crawford said there are many septic systems in his neighborhood and he had never heard of anyone getting sick from them.
"It's really difficult to track disease back to a source," Delahunt replied. "We do know that there are many instances in the county that we see on a regular basis where sewage is being discharged into ditches. ... We know that in underdeveloped countries, where sewer is in the ditch ... we know that rates of enteric (intestinal) disease are much higher than they are in places where they keep the sewage out of the ditches."
Delahunt noted that when Nooksack Valley High School got a county inspection notice last summer, school officials discovered that their system had no drainfield, and waste from the school's septic tank was flowing into a storm drain.
"If they hadn't gotten a letter from us, they wouldn't have looked at it," Delahunt said. "As a public health agency we talk about prevention all the time. This is a prevention program."
Council member Barbara Brenner, the most outspoken critic of tighter inspections and higher fees, was not convinced.
"I don't think it's a major problem like it's being portrayed," she said.