Helping Companies Comply Proves More Effective Than Regulatory Pressure

A New Mexico county takes a gentler approach to enforcing certification requirements and sees positive results.
Helping Companies Comply Proves More Effective Than Regulatory Pressure

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When a county realized that most of its septic pumpers were not properly certified, officials called on the New Mexico Environment Department to do something about it. As they found out, it wasn’t just a matter of enforcing the rules. “Our approach has really been one of compliance assistance,” explains James Vincent, liquid waste program manager for the Environment Department. “We are trying to be patient and friendly and bring all the companies into the fold. This was previously an unregulated industry.”

Certification wasn’t required prior to November 2011. When the number of uncertified pumpers was recognized in San Juan County this year, some people wanted the Environment Department to start issuing citations. “We don’t want to put these people out of business, we need pumpers,” stresses Vincent.

“Given the situation there, we had to move from our compliance assistance mindset to one moving toward more enforcement,” he adds. Still, no citations or fines were issued. Instead, the Liquid Waste Program increased its outreach to help companies comply, and it has worked. In May 2015, when the situation first came to light, it’s believed that only two pumpers in the county were properly certified. Within two months, that number had ballooned to 13. Another six were notified that they were in violation, but all indicated they would soon be compliant.

“Our key lesson learned was that one size doesn’t fit all,” says the Environment Department’s Communications Director Allison Majure, noting that many other communities had experienced no issues with compliance. “We have to customize our practices for the community. The approach in San Juan County has been different. We’re not out to hammer people with fines and blindly say ‘These are the rules.’ We want to bring people into compliance because that’s what helps keep New Mexico pristine.”

One idea implemented in other New Mexico counties and floated in San Juan County was to require pumpers to be certified in order to dispose of septage at the county’s only wastewater treatment plant. The county was hesitant because it was the area’s only option for septage disposal. “They feared that some of the pumpers would dump illegally if they didn’t have their paperwork in order,” says Majure. “We needed a different approach to reach the San Juan County septic pumpers.”

She says regulators need to pay attention to local customs and conditions. The state has poverty rates among the highest in the nation, which impacts people’s willingness and ability to pay for proper septic maintenance. “That’s significant to how we’ve approached this problem,” says Majure.

While New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the U.S. in land area, it is 45th in population density. Its 2 million people are spread out across 122,000 square miles – just 17 people per square mile, with half the people living in Albuquerque. That means a lot of small companies and one-person pumper operations provide a needed service to small towns and rural areas.

That made it difficult to even identify pumpers since it had been an unregulated practice until just a few years ago. “A lot of the challenge was how we communicate with companies that are flying under the radar,” says Vincent. “We don’t have an address, we don’t have a phone number, they’re not in the Yellow Pages, but they seem to be operating. A lot of this has been word-of-mouth. People would call me and say, ‘I just saw a pump truck with this name and phone number, are they on the list?’ We’re getting help from the community.”

The San Juan Watershed Group has helped the Liquid Waste Program put together a list of pumpers in the community, and they are working with the Environment Department to develop a utility bill insert to alert residents to report illegal dumping. The two organizations also worked together on a water fair for San Juan County to help raise awareness of well water quality.

The rule, which grew out of concerns from the onsite industry that some pumpers were not properly pumping tanks, is not that stringent. It requires that pumpers “demonstrate competence” in:

  • Locating and exposing septic tanks
  • Measuring sludge and scum levels
  • Properly pumping liquid and sludge
  • Maintenance and sanitary conditions of pumping equipment
  • Preventing pathogen transmission

To do that, pumpers are required to take the NAWT online class. “It goes over all the basics that are required in the regulation, it’s a perfect match for us and is a nationally recognized program,” says Vincent. “The people who take it report to me that they learn something and are a little more careful with the sanitary issues, cleanliness and completely cleaning the tanks.”

Today, just a few months after the problem was identified, Vincent says San Juan County is making good progress to certify septic tank pumpers. “We are working with the community to educate customers as well as septic pumpers about the best practices required for safe and hygienic management of septic tanks, while also bringing the regional septic industry into environmental compliance.”  


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