In Oregon, wastewater professionals gather to lobby regulators and raise training standards.
The Oregon Onsite Wastewater Association was formed in 1995 over concerns about a substantial rewrite of regulations in the state. Designed as both a watchdog and a liaison between the private sector and the Department of Environmental Quality, association President Brannon Lamp says the relationship has worked well ever since.
With nearly 300 members, O2WA is governed by a 13-member volunteer board with representatives of manufacturers, engineers, soil scientists, installers, pumpers, septic tank manufacturers, O & M providers, an environmental health specialist and a county regulator.
How does O2WA work with the DEQ?
Lamp: The DEQ’s onsite program coordinator, Randy Trox, is an ex-officio member of our board of directors. DEQ keeps us apprised of the goings-on in their program and occasionally comes to us for input and comments on policies and procedures. We’ll sometimes give them recommendations about how the program is operated. Largely, it’s been a success. Keeping that line of communication open is critical, and we’re striving to do more all the time.
What is the biggest issue you’re dealing with?
Lamp: There are concerns about consistency in regards to how the program is operated statewide. O2WA recently formed an ad hoc committee to review and address some of those concerns. Geography, site and soil variabilities are certainly part of it, as are materials concerns and installation techniques. Things are supposed to be done uniformly no matter what side of the state or which county you are in. We and our members, particularly installation contractors, have found that that’s not always the case. They might cross a county line and find a completely different way of doing things that may or may not be consistent with the rules.
A few years ago, DEQ was involved in a dispute with an environmental group claiming (the DEQ wasn’t) doing enough to meet the Coastal Zone Management Act. Part of those negotiations did affect onsite wastewater in that they initially were going to start a mandatory inspection program for systems in the coastal zone. Eventually they compromised and did not make it mandatory, but they did come up with a framework, form and format for conducting inspections. Now, anywhere in the state where a system inspection is performed, the qualified person is supposed to follow the same procedure.
We weren’t part of the negotiations, but did provide input on the format of the inspection program and what sort of individuals are qualified to perform them. We provided the initial draft of the form to DEQ that we put together in an ad hoc committee. They didn’t accept everything we put in front of them but they did accept a lot of our input. There are questions about the efficacy because inspections aren’t mandated, but it’s good to have that consistent framework to use.
Tell us about your certification programs for wastewater professionals.
Lamp: I think we have a reasonably robust certification program. We have licensing and certification requirements for installers that start with a one-day training course with an exam. Installers are required to obtain 18 continuing education hours every three years to maintain certification. We have something similar for certified operation and maintenance providers. That’s a two-day course with an exam and the same continuing education requirements. The exam is administered by Chemeketa Community College through an agreement with DEQ.
The exam courses are put on by longtime industry professionals. O2WA provides the training materials and we have quarterly meetings with the college. For continuing education, O2WA provides occasional training seminars and courses across the state with various individuals presenting them. We also have our two-day annual conference and one-day mini conference. Those conferences are the primary source of CEU credits for many practitioners.
For design professionals, we use professional engineers and registered environmental health specialists who have their own certification requirements, many of which do overlap.
Currently, you don’t need to be certified to be a pumper, but you do need a sewage disposal license from the DEQ. Many of our pumpers do chose to get some sort of certification, whether it be through the National Association of Wastewater Technicians or some other entity, so they can do things like system inspections that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. We have many pumpers in our association.
Is there anything coming up that will demand your attention?
Lamp: I’m sure we’re not alone with this, our program at the state level seems to be poorly funded and supported. We do have challenges ahead of us in regard to how we fund and staff that program adequately so it can operate in an efficient manner. We do have concerns about the ability for the program to operate adequately in the future.
How much lobbying do you do to influence legislators?
Lamp: Unfortunately, I would say at this point, not enough. We’ve certainly worked with DEQ on various bills in the past, but with pretty limited success. The program is not something that people find particularly attractive, therefore we find it’s not well supported. Historically, much of the legislation put forth doesn’t end up getting too far, but that changed just recently with the passage of Senate Bill 1563A, which requires the DEQ to award grants for the purpose of developing and administering loan programs to provide low-interest loans for purposes related to onsite septic system repairs, replacements, upgrades and evaluations.
We are looking at the possibility of working with a lobbyist. It’s on our radar and will be discussed at future board meetings. We recognize there’s a need for us to perhaps be a little more vocal and try to affect some change at the policy level of the legislature. I believe DEQ would welcome that, especially if we can operate with a unified front.
Have you been working internally on any new ideas?
Lamp: Like most organizations, we have an annual two-day conference, but last year we added a second one-day mini conference in November. We’ll continue to hold that in a rural area of the state so that people who wouldn’t normally attend our annual conference have a chance to attend and have dealings with our organization.
We have a good scholarship program and are setting up a separate, nonprofit organization so we can allow tax-deductible donations. Now it’s funded by organization revenues and fundraisers.
How’s business in Oregon?
Lamp: Without question, business is booming. The industry is busier than it’s been in quite a few years. I think it’s primarily because of the strong housing market. A lot of people are buying and selling real estate, and there’s also a lot of commercial development going on. The bigger cities like Portland are just running out of room for folks, and density is increasing with a lot of apartment and condominium buildings going up in areas that had been primarily single family. We actually have a deficit in housing, especially affordable housing, in Oregon at this point. We’re looking forward to supporting our members as they’re able to make hay.