On-site sewage systems (OSS) remains an important public health topic in practice and also in policy and the legislature.

Each session, there are several bills posted addressing OSS from all different perspectives.  This past week, an OSS bill from the last session made a reappearance. HB 1476 (Peterson) passed the House floor and was referred to Energy, Environment, and Technology committee in the Senate. WSALPHO and WSAC remain opposed to this bill.

Owners of OSS are generally responsible for maintaining the OSS on their properties. This is done through inspections every three years for most systems, or annually for more complicated systems.  Owners bear the cost of repair and upkeep of their OSS.

Within the 12 county Puget Sound area, there are approximately 600,000 OSS. Starting in 2007, local health jurisdictions (LHJs) were required to develop an OSS management plan that is approved by the Department of Health (DOH).  The purpose of these plans are to help owners of OSS evaluate and maintain their systems. This is of particular importance in marine recovery areas associated with: shellfish growing, marine waters with fecal coliform, and water where nitrogen is a contaminant.

Plans must include:

  1. Inventory of all OSS within the LHJ
  2. Identify areas where OSS poses an increased public health risk
  3. Identify additional requirements for OSS in areas of risk
  4. Protocol to help owners keep up the maintenance and inspection requirements for their system

HB 1476 proposes additional mandates and plan requirements:

  1. Plan must be updated and approved by DOH every five years
  2. LHJs must submit progress reports to DOH every other year on OSS implementation progress
  3. Included in the plan:
    1. Protocol for tracking failures of OSS by design and technology
    2. Full implementation plan for LHJs
    3. Plan to identify and track previously un-known OSS with the target of identifying 20% of un-inventoried OFF in a county annually.
    4. Demonstration of how local OSS programs are currently funded and a funding plan for subsequent years, including expenditures and revenues by funding source and activity.
  4. Include additional definitions of “unsafe systems” that would include OSS that threaten safety by causing injury or death.

As WSALPHO testified last year – our reality is that current local funding and staffing levels across the state do not have the capacity to operate with these additional mandates.  We agree that the planning requirements and safety consideration elements of the bill are good in purpose, and our primary opposition of the bill is the requirement to update a more robust plan with no assurance of funding.  The planning process, as it is happening now from the 2007 requirement, already takes several years and includes LHJs to engage their communities through stakeholder outreach, community workshops, hearings, briefings, and other components.

Further, there are several parts of the bill that are unfunded mandates:

  1. Updating Local Management Plans (LMP) every 5 years; counties already do this as the need and their budget allows.  For example, Thurston County is completing their local management plan which has been a three-year process.  Its cost has been approximately $150,000.  Their plan update has involved more than 1,300 staff hours to hold 15 stakeholders and 11 board of health meetings, with additional staff time and resources in updating internal coding, conducting public outreach and education, and finalizing the plan.
  2. Tracking failure rates by the different sewage technologies and designs; this would be new for LHJs to track and would need investment in the development of a database and capacity for both locals and DOH to operate.
  3. Reporting findings from these tracking activities to DOH on a regular basis; it is unclear to what end and what the expectation would be for DOH to act on these reports.  WSALPHO is against collecting and maintaining databases that are not utilized, and there would be additional staff time dedicated to both the collection and maintenance of this data as well as the reporting.

With the additional duties outlined in HB 1476, the state should dedicate funds for these plans.  Further, planning development is a foundational public health service as defined in the Foundational Public Health Service Functional Definitions (created by DOH and LHJs).  As an FPHS, it should be funded through state sources and local fees.  Currently, OSS funding is almost completely funded through local fees.  LHJs assess these fees (costs to the public) annually and they are ultimately approved by the local board of health.  However, to cover new mandates and additional work, fees cannot and should not be raised just to cover deficits in state allocations.


Jaime Bodden

Jaime Bodden is the Managing Director for WSALPHO. Previously, Jaime managed and oversaw the operations of a small health department as Health Officer/Director. Additionally, Jaime has experience in community engagement, health promotion, global health, and health policy. She holds Master degrees in Social Work and Public Health from Washington University in St. Louis.