Ohio to Update Onsite Regulations for First Time in 35 Years

Facing increasing septic system failures and a vacuum in approved technologies, officials embark on a journey to update regulations for the first time in 35 years.
Ohio to Update Onsite Regulations for First Time in 35 Years
Andrew Thomas can be reached by email at Andrew.thomas@odh.ohio.gov or by phone at 614/644-0258.

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In January the Ohio Department of Health released its 2013 report on failures in household sewage treatment systems. On the surface the report doesn’t look positive. It says almost one in every three household systems is suffering from some degree of failure. Underneath that broad result reported in the popular press is a more complicated picture.

For example, the systems with the highest failure rate, 56 percent, are those about which no history is known. The lowest reported rates of failure were for septic or pretreatment systems combined with a leach field, 14 percent, or combined with a mound system, 3 percent.

To learn more, Pumper talked to Andrew Thomas, a sanitarian program specialist with the Ohio Health Department.

Pumper: In the earlier 2008 report the failure rate was 23 percent, and in 2012 it was 31 percent. Why do you think the rate went up?

Thomas: One reason we have discussed is a greater awareness of failing systems. In 2008 there wasn’t a clear definition of what constituted a public health nuisance. Because of changes to the law, in 2010 counties received standards to measure systems against. They knew what they were looking for, and when you know that you’re more likely to find something.

Also, in 2012 more local health departments responded to the state’s request for information. This time around we tried to streamline the survey so completing it required less work by local health departments.

This survey is part of the requirements of the Clean Water Act, and Ohio EPA must submit information on water and wastewater infrastructure needs to the federal government every four years. I understand this was the second time Ohio EPA has partnered with the Ohio Health Department to prepare the report because the partnership provides better information. Ohio EPA oversees municipal sanitary systems but has little information on household treatment systems because those are under the oversight of the Ohio Health Department.

Pumper: From looking at the report it seems the age and type of system is a factor?

Thomas:  In part that’s true. Some systems may have been designated as failing just because no one knows what’s there. In other cases there is very little paperwork [indicating] what was installed decades ago. People would apply for a septic system permit and be very imprecise; they would say they were building at the third place past Doc Johnson’s farm, and that was about all the information recorded. In some cases we can find the tank but don’t know if the tank discharges to a leach field or is tied into the field tile. And in many cases local health departments just do not have the resources to investigate all these unknown systems.

Pumper: Some of those older systems also discharged to surface waters and have high failure rates, but those are now banned in Ohio, right?

Thomas: It’s not completely banned. Any replacement system discharging to surface waters requires coverage under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for Ohio. No system for new construction is allowed to discharge. If an onsite system is feasible, there can be no discharge to surface waters.

Pumper: If not all health departments responded to this survey, are system failures still under-reported?

Thomas: Yes. I think some areas have better information than others.

We have some counties with comprehensive operation and maintenance programs for home sewage systems, and they actively monitor systems. Some counties focus only on the more complex systems. For example they may inspect a septic tank with a leach field only every 10 years but will check aerated treatment units annually or biannually because the electrical and mechanical components in those systems can fail if not properly maintained. Other counties have no monitoring program and are aware of problems only if someone reports a concern. Sewage may be emerging on top of the ground, but if the homeowner is not concerned and it is not reported, no one looks at the system.

Pumper: Are you looking at new regulations?

Thomas: We’ve been drafting new rules for two and a half years. We just finished with the first public comment period. An advisory committee will review the comments received during the past couple of months. Then a second draft of the rules will go to Ohio Public Health Advisory Board for its comments, and I believe they will be accepting public comments for the first 30 days of their 60-day comment period.

We expect review of the rules will last into the fall, and we anticipate they will take effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Pumper: What is the gist of the new rules?

Thomas: Wow, that’s a very broad question. It’s a 35-year update, from 1977 to now. Our goal is to make the rules more consistent across the state because now there can be significant differences from one county to the next. We need to bring the rules up to date with current technology and scientific understanding of how wastewater is treated in the soil.

One requirement will be for each county to establish an operation and maintenance program for systems. For upgrading older systems, money is already available through the Water Pollution Control Fund under Ohio EPA, and several counties have been very successful in getting financial assistance to update or replace older systems.

We’re proposing to add some new technologies to those allowed under the current rule. Mound systems, for example, will be included. They can be used now, but it was done as a special approval, which allowed us to include some standards about the design of these systems. We’re also adding different leaching products. All of these additions increase the options for installations on challenging sites.

County health departments will be able to adopt rules more restrictive than the state’s rules, but unlike the past they won’t be able to act at will. They will have to petition the state health director to approve their rule, and they will have to justify why their more stringent rule is needed. I believe they will also be required to do an economic impact analysis as part of that justification.

Another section of the new rules concerns the education of system owners. We will develop materials to teach sanitarians, contractors, real estate professionals and homeowners about home systems and how they should be treated. Education will be a big part of our focus when the new rules take effect.

We also address operation and maintenance inspections. If a homeowner has a service contract on a system, by furnishing inspection reports from the contractor they can eliminate the need to have a county inspect their system. We’re already seeing this in part. On newer systems one requirement for the homeowner is to have a service contract for the life of that system. I think we’ll see more need for service contracts as older systems are added to the existing county operation and maintenance programs or replaced with new ones. That may be in a couple of years; it may be 10 years, but eventually I think regular maintenance will become more common.


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