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Inspections are not the problem. The Dept. of Health rule governing inspections is the problem. The DOH rule is not about fixing broken septic systems. As the rule is written, it could cost unsuspecting homeowners thousands of dollars to fix something that isn’t broken.

Why Thumbs Up on Inspections?

Septic Inspections will identify septic systems that are not working and pose a threat to public health. It’s relatively simple, and cost effective, to identify a system that has failed and needs repair. For years and years, the Dept. of Health (DOH) standard for identifying a failure has been (1) exposed sewage or effluent on the site, (2) leaking or deformed tank or lid, (3) back up of sewage into the home. Absolutely correct, and steps should be taken to fix the problem. Periodic pump out of a system every five to seven years should be considered normal maintenance and will prolong the life of a properly constructed system as well as insure its ability to treat waste to minimize or eliminate potential groundwater contamination. Reasonable action, reasonable cost, reasonable results.

Why Thumbs Down on Dept. of Health Rule?

The DOH has written the rule in a way that a functioning drainfield that passes the three standards mentioned above will still have to be dug up and replaced. And, it’s very clever how they have done this.

1. Their first pass at writing the new rule for SB 550 inspections, they attempted to re-write the failure standard. It said a “repair” permit is required if the bottom of the drainfield does not meet the minimum separation from the wettest season water table as required in s.381.0065(5)(d)”. Realizing this would not pass the sniff test for legality, they issued a second version.

2. The second version said the system evaluation must include soil testing and high water table separation measurements. With this information in hand, the Dept. of Health rule changed. It now says, not a “repair” permit, but a “MODIFICATION” permit is required if the system does not meet separation standards. In other words, the DOH can and will demand that a homeowner dig up and replace a fully functioning drainfield so it conforms to the separation code as stated in SB 550. There was nothing in SB 550 that says the evaluation must include testing for high water table separation. The intent of SB 550 was to make sure a system that needed repair was brought up to current separation code. It was not to force a replacement of a fully functioning, legally permitted drainfield based on new separation codes. Separation testing does not need to be part of the original evaluation. It should be done AFTER the system is judged as failing so that the repair brings it up to code.
3. DOH says in their memos to many homeowners that this is an “opportunity to significantly reduce groundwater contamination.” Mr. Briggs says that mandate is already “in the statutes.” Not really. Our sources tell us the original concern about “groundwater contamination” referred to in the statute was insure the homeowner’s well was not located too close to a drainfield. The 75 ft. distance from the drainfield required by DOH is a horizontal measurement, not a vertical measurement. It seems Mr. Briggs and his staff have taken it upon themselves to re-write the statute definition as well as re-write the intent of SB 550.

4. There is currently no money to help poverty-level homeowners with the costs. DOH will raise money by inspecting the most recently installed, already permitted systems, simply because those are the ones they have records for. These are the systems most likely to be functioning, not in need of “repair” but may need to be “modified,” which also increases fees paid to DOH. Septic contractors will have to attend classes to be certified to perform the soil and separation test mandated by the rule. More income for DOH. Of course, contractors will be passing along to homeowners the business costs incurred as well as the cost of their time to perform the separation tests, as any good businessman would do. We see where this will raise money for assisting the grant program. We see where this will increase the costs to homeowners. But we fail to see where this schedule for implementation will identify the estimated ten percent of 2.5 million septic systems that are actually a threat to water resources – unless DOH did not do their job in the first place.

5. DOH says this rule helps EPA understand that Florida is serious about reducing groundwater contamination. What they have set in motion with this rule is a scenario that forces homeowners to dig up a drainfield to meet separation codes before we know what EPA or Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection may mandate to reduce nutrients. Will the homeowner have to dig it up twice, once for separation and again to reduce nutrients? What about the nitrogen reduction study that is funded and underway for conventional/passive septic system alternatives? Once again, DOH has it backwards, and we have to wonder why it’s so hard for them to get it right, or get it in the right order.

6. SB 550 language for septic inspections will be modified or repealed, and the rule overturned. As pointed out by the Technical Review Advisory Panel (TRAP) on 9/23, since changes will be made, it makes sense to postpone implementation of the inspection program until June 2011. We have been informed a bill has already been introduced by Sen. Evelyn Lynn (Dist.7) to repeal the inspection provision of SB 550. We will confirm that, but we also know there will be more bills introduced by other legislators as soon as elections are over.

Gov. Crist has recently stated he wants DOH to implement the inspection program in the “least burdensome” manner possible. The least burdensome manner possible is to eliminate the groundwater separation testing from the system evaluation. The cost of a pump out and simple visual inspection – $350-$400. The cost of inspection, pump out and separation testing – $600 or more. Uncoupling the separation testing from the evaluation will save the homeowners of Florida millions in unnecessary evaluation costs. This will also save each homeowner the cost of replacing a drainfield that is, by “repair standards,” fully functioning. Average drainfield replacement cost per homeowner – $4,000-$6,000. That doesn’t include the landscaping repair.

If anything requires modification or repair, it’s the DOH Bureau of On-Site Sewage. They admitted to TRAP in July the mandates in the proposed rule may trigger legal challenges. They don’t seem to care. Just like last year, they are refusing to respond to the fact that they totally missed the intent of the legislature. Deliberate or not, they are twisting words and meanings. No one gave them permission to create legislative intent or re-write the law and make it retroactive. They continually behave in a manner that is totally disrespectful to our legislators and abusive to the residents of our state. We have to question why.

PLAN TO ATTEND DOH PUBLIC MEETINGS

During the month of October, four public meetings will be held by the Dept. of Health, Bureau of On-Site Sewage. This is required by statute when rules are going to be adopted and published in the statutes. PLAN TO ATTEND! Meetings will be held in Ft. Myers, DeFuniak Springs, Ft. Lauderdale, and in Tallahassee. Click on “Calendar” for details. Go, and find out why we must continually police their actions, why our legislators are up in arms, and why the recommendations of TRAP members, who volunteer their expertise and countless hours of unpaid time, are being ignored. WHY?

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