Onsite Oversight is OK in Oklahoma

The Sooner State addresses the need for improved communication and updated septic regulations, looks ahead to tackling issues including graywater reuse.
Onsite Oversight is OK in Oklahoma
Contact Matt Pace at 405/702-6209 or matt.pace@deq.ok.gov.

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Conventional systems are preferred when planning onsite wastewater treatment in Oklahoma. The design and inspection of septic systems falls under the auspices of the Environmental Complaints and Local Services Division of the Department of Environmental Quality, which has offices spread across the state.

Environmental programs manager Matt Pace says the agency works closely with the Oklahoma Certified Installers Association (OCIA), founded in 2000 when its executive director, Bill Warden, retired from his job as DEQ’s onsite coordinator. Warden says its 100 members are mostly installers, many of whom also provide pumping services to their customers.

What is DEQ’s role in the oversight of onsite wastewater in Oklahoma?

Pace: We cover all 77 counties from cradle to grave: everything from design and soil profiles through inspections, enforcement and licensing of onsite professionals.

You’d be amazed at how much the soil changes throughout the state. Oklahoma is very diverse. We have the desert-like area in the panhandle to coastal plains in the southeast, mountains in the east. Our system of choice is conventional pipe and gravel. We think that’s the best system and when we do a soil profile our thought is where we can place a conventional system. If the soil isn’t conducive, then we look at the alternatives.

With about 6,000 systems going in every year, it’s hard for our staff to do every design and inspection. We have 22 field offices across the state with a staff of 100, including 60 environmental specialists. So we license onsite professionals to do design and inspections to cut down the amount of time we have to spend.

How does licensing work in the state?

Pace: We have three licensing programs, including septage haulers and five categories of installer licenses: conventional pipe and gravel, aerobic systems with spray, aerobic systems with drip irrigation, lagoons, and low-pressure dosing systems. And we license soil profilers, who need a bachelor’s degree.

The license involves going through our class and passing an exam and posting a bond. To maintain the license, they are required to have continuing education each year. Soil profilers (25 individuals plus 60 licensed staff members) must take an annual approved continuing education course and pass an annual soil texturing exam. Installers (325 people) need at least four hours of approved continuing education per year. Haulers (300 people) require two hours of continuing education every other year.

We can communicate with them during continuing education and pass along rule changes. We also communicate with installers at the annual OCIA conference and we meet with their board periodically. Unfortunately, we don’t have any organizations for soil profilers or septage haulers.

Warden: I saw a need for an onsite association (in 2000) because the training installers got after their initial certification just wasn’t cutting it. We need quality education and training and it seems to work pretty well now. We have a pretty high quality of instructors to do hands-on training for all the modern technologies used today.

The biggest advantage is that either DEQ or OCIA can come up with an idea and bounce it off each other. Coming from opposite sides of the industry, we can generally come up with some pretty workable solutions to any issue. The more people you have working on the same issue, the better off you are.

Which issues top the list in Oklahoma?

Pace: Using the soils properly. Trying to communicate that has been a big issue recently. Most homeowners don’t know anything about septic systems, so they rely on us and the licensed individuals to supply information they need. In 2004, we started doing soil profiles as opposed to perc tests. We feel that’s a much more reliable test, but the law still allows perc tests and there’s still a good-sized group of people who use perc tests. We’re still trying to convince them that soil profiles are a better way to go.

A big issue is the health of some of our streams and rivers that don’t meet certain standards. In 2012, we started a new rule that requires nitrogen reduction technology within a certain distance of listed waters. It hasn’t always been met with a lot of enthusiasm and there’s been some controversy around it, but we’re just trying to do what we can to further protect those waters.

Warden: DEQ and OCIA worked hand in hand on denitrification because areas that may be classified as sensitive really aren’t. We helped set the boundary lines. Our members have been there and installed in those areas. They know what will and will not work and what is and is not possible.

It (denitrification) is a good thing, but the percentage of pollution that enters our ecosystem from onsite sewage is probably less than 2 percent. We have not addressed the real issue, which is runoff, particularly nitrogen. The majority of that is from agriculture. What we have stopped from onsite wastewater makes up a very low percentage.

OCIA is dedicated to raising the bar to become and maintain certified installer status, which is likely one of the key issues within the onsite profession. This includes hands-on contact with standard and new technologies, resolution of problem systems, troubleshooting malfunctions, and quality presentations from professionals in the onsite industry.

Pace: We recently started a partnership with Oklahoma State University to help with some of our issues. The assistant professor of soil science, Sergio Abit, recently came here after doing a lot of work in the onsite program at North Carolina State University. He held his first onsite conference this fall with about 200 people. He’s also working on a training center, which will have some mock-up systems. That will really be beneficial in educating people.

We’re trying to help provide some funding for him to hire a grad student to do studies on onsite systems, how they are working, and whether or not our sizing requirements are applicable.
OSU got us started with soil profiles several years ago when we worked with Dr. Brian Carter. He came up with the whole process for how we perform those profiles. Our work with the university has helped with our nitrogen issues.

Do you see new issues on the horizon?

Pace: I’m a member of the State Onsite Regulators Alliance (SORA). The trend is to go green and people want to do things on their own. We’ve been getting a lot of questions and curiosity from citizens about graywater and water reuse. We don’t allow graywater systems in Oklahoma, so I’m sure that’s something we’ll have to look at in the near future. We haven’t done any work on that, but when we do we can use our partnership with Oklahoma State.

Warden: Reuse of water isn’t popular right now, but they’ve done it quite successfully in California with very little opposition. It’s a real issue and it’s going to have to happen.


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