Pumpers and installers work closely with the state legislature to promote efficient wastewater regulations and a cleaner environment.
The North Carolina Septic Tank Association formed in 1990 to provide opportunities for all onsite wastewater professionals in the state, not just members. To attract voting members who would add value, membership dues were set relatively high at $300 a year, according to President Jerry Pearce.
One benefit of joining is free training for members and their employees. It has helped attract 300 members, and the group has succeeded in spreading the benefits across the entire industry with affordable training for non-members and lobbying that has helped change the regulatory environment.
Pumper: Has your strategy of high dues worked as planned?
Pearce: It works pretty well for us. Training is our largest funding apparatus. We can offer continuing education hours at a lower rate than the state or university. We’re not driven strictly by membership dollars for our lobbying, outreach, and five or six annual college scholarships. We’ve awarded almost $40,000 in scholarships to students going on to universities and community colleges.
In 2006, we were the primary driver for the certification of onsite installers and time-of-sale inspectors. Occupational licensure is always a tough sale, but our argument prevailed and passed by an overwhelming majority. That led to the need for continuing education, and the association soon became the source for most of the training for certified onsite professionals in North Carolina. The requirement varies, but it’s around six hours annually.
We train about 1,500 people a year at our annual convention and at 10 regional sites across the state during the year. We provide about 50 to 75 percent of the required training for pumpers, installers, time-of-sale inspectors, soil scientists, and certified operators. It is free for members, and we extend that free training to registered sanitarians for the counties. We wanted to get regulators into the same class, listening to the same speakers as the people who are being regulated.
We also offer hands-on training for contractors who want to help groups like Habitat for Humanity and the Wounded Warriors Project. They get credit for installing a system under our supervision. That’s working well for those who learn that way, the people who can sit on a backhoe for 12 hours a day but can’t sit in a classroom for two hours.
Pumper: How do you manage all that training?
Pearce: We get great help from Emerald Enterprises, which keeps the records, plans the classes, and keeps the association current with our paperwork. Our executive director and members write the curriculum with help from other stakeholders. The North Carolina Department of Labor does all of our safety training, and we bring in the Highway Patrol Motor Carrier enforcement group to do training. Our vendors go out of their way to provide staff people for presentations.
Pumper: What does your membership look like?
Pearce: Voting membership is limited to tank manufacturers, installers and pumpers. We have other active, non-voting members from licensed soil scientists, professional engineers, manufacturers of components or systems, and local health department regulators.
Pumper: Lobbying is another primary focus of your group. What does that entail?
Pearce: Doug Lassiter, our executive director, is also our lobbyist. He works with the Legislature, state agencies and local environmental health agencies to promote our industry and help develop legislation to expand our opportunities and protect from unwarranted regulations. He also works with issues that concern related industries, like stormwater reuse, solid waste and land application.
Our legislative success started in the late 1990s when the Legislature demanded that all potential water polluters come up with improvements for their industry. While the state suggested a study, we suggested requiring effluent filters and access devices on septic tanks. The Legislature liked giving homeowners something that could be of immediate benefit, and the requirement was put in place the next year.
Our most recent legislative action was the Regulatory Reform Act of 2015 that passed (last) September, trying to make rules easier to understand and implement and trying to eliminate some that might be outdated. We promoted the idea of having an option for owners and developers to get approval of onsite wastewater systems.
Historically, the sole authority for approving systems was with the local health departments with review by the state. We promoted the Engineer Option Permit. The owner can contract with a qualified professional engineer to design the system, licensed soil scientists to evaluate the site, and a certified installer to build the engineered system.
The system design has to be as stringent as the standards of the local health department.
While it’s more expensive, the turnaround time is much quicker, so that can change the bottom line, especially for a property developer. There are permits that have been waiting for approval for more than 1 1/2 years. This option will cut that at least in half.
I still think 85 percent of permits will be written by the local health department, but we’ll have this extra tool. We promoted this as the stability of the three-legged stool — protecting public health, the environment, and the owner’s economic investment. The Legislature liked the idea and included it in the bill, along with a few other of our ideas.
Of the 71-page bill, 19 pages dealt with onsite wastewater, including the engineer option and some language to clarify rules, things that will immediately affect the industry.
Another bill, two years ago, required agencies to review and eliminate rules every five years. The On-Site Water Protection Branch is now looking at rules that haven’t been revised in probably 12 years. We could have waited for that review, but a lot of us participated the last time they tried about 10 years ago. In the end, they decided to not move forward with the rule changes. So we took advantage of the Reform Act.
We are participating in the review, trying to bring common sense and effectiveness to the task and make sure the rules do not establish unnecessary hurdles that add costs.
We attempt to work with the regulators but recognize that we may be approaching necessary changes from different directions. It’s our job to make sure the needs of the private sector are not overlooked. We just have to be prepared in the private sector, and we have to make sure that the regulatory framework enables the greatest opportunities for our members, the onsite wastewater industry, and the environment.
Pumper: What’s your vision of the future?
Pearce: We did a survey of our certified installers a few years ago. The average age was 57. We’re talking with NC State University about promoting and improving the soils science department. Part of that will be to make sure we have college students getting certified training. We have in place in our association the ability for certified installers to bring sons and daughters to courses with them and make it easier to transfer ownership of the business to provide that next generation of onsite wastewater professionals.
There are new technologies, especially in Europe where they have more population density and fewer natural resources, so hopefully we’ll be able to bring some of that technology over here. We want to protect our industry. If that means adapting, then we adapt.
Contact Jerry Pearce, president of the North Carolina Septic Tank Association, at 919/971-4599; contact Doug Lassiter, association executive director, at email@example.com.