This article originally appeared in the West Plains Daily Quill, November 13, 2006. Reprinted with permission.
Health department gets positive feedback on proposed sewer ordinance
by Denise Henderson Vaughn
Howell County Health Department board members were peppered with questions, concerns and opinions during a public comment session held to discuss a proposed county-wide sewer ordinance, but little outright opposition was voiced, and some in the audience said the board should be commended, one calling the action "long overdue.''
Of the 30-plus Tuesday evening (Election Day) at the health department office on Garfield Avenue, a few voiced concerns that the ordinance would infringe on private property rights. The majority seemed to be in favor of the ordinance or at least to accept it.
In addition to health department board and staff, attendees included septic tank installers, builders, developers, a surveyor, a soil scientist, and all three Howell County commissioners. While the ordinance is being proposed by the health department, it is the commission that will ultimately decide its fate. The measure may go before the commission as soon as January.
The proposed ordinance mirrors existing state law for home sewer installation, with one change. Current state law allows any type of sewer system on any lot greater than three acres, and no inspection is required. Systems on smaller lots must be permitted, which involves doing a soil test, meeting certain design criteria, and getting the system inspected.
Health department board Chairman Dr. Robert Shaw, Willow Springs said, "We're removing the three-acre exemption.'' If the ordinance passes, anyone building a new house must get a permit and have the system inspected, regardless of lot size.
Unlike northern Missouri with its deep soils, the local rocky terrain allows pollution to quickly enter the groundwater. "Here, the size of the land isn't important,'' Shaw said. "A failing system on 100 acres can pollute groundwater just as easily as one on three acres.''
Board member Art Ellsworth, Willow Springs, said discussions have been ongoing for almost two years and have involved the county commission and the installers who will be affected. "Some wanted it, others were reluctant. We didn't know if we had a problem,'' he added.
Testing Some Wells
So a study was conducted in which about 1,000 Howell County wells were tested. "With the results, we found, whoops we do have a problem. Over 42 percent of the wells tested were polluted with coliform bacteria,'' he said. That type of bacteria is only found in feces, either human or animal. [see the water survey map]
Shaw added that the ordinance is a compromise that will not resolve all of the county's groundwater pollution problems. Since it only affects new houses or existing houses where the sewer system is being completely redone, the ordinance does not address existing systems that are leaking or rotten, he said. "If your neighbors are dumping raw sewage, you can complain, but there's nothing we can do about it,'' he said. "But we need to start somewhere. With this, every new home will have to meet state standards.''
The next step, Shaw said, is to look for funding so the department can offer incentives to upgrade existing sewer systems which are failing. He pointed out that the county-wide well testing did not show a trend toward large sources of pollution. Instead, a bad well would pop up right in between a cluster of good ones, leading him to conclude "we think the majority of bad wells are being polluted from their own septic systems, not their neighbor's.''
"This is much overdue,'' said Dean Proffitt, West Plains, who during the meeting commended the board for its "hard work to develop this.'' All the counties to the west have this type of ordinance, he added. "It's so important in this karst topography to protect our groundwater for our children and grandchildren,'' he said.
Lawrence Surface, West Plains, said, "I want clean water, but where will we stop?'' He referred to the controversial nine-county "super sewer district'' formed near Springfield, which property rights activists have strongly opposed. "Will you eventually be monitoring wells?'' he asked.
"We don't want to go there,'' Shaw replied, adding Surface's concern is "not unreasonable.'' Shaw assured the group that the health department board is very conservative and does not want to impose on residents any more than is necessary. He said they had rejected recommendations from a former staff member who had proposed a much more comprehensive and restrictive ordinance.
Concerning property rights, Shaw said that when one landowner's actions are polluting the neighbors' property, then "we must compromise between property rights and protecting those neighbors.''
The most important thing a health department can do is assure clean water, Shaw said. "Things like flu shots are the gravy. Even doctors are not more important than clean water. If you want to be a missionary and go to Africa and help people, then help them get clean water.''
Licensed septic tank installers who attended expressed dissatisfaction with the present situation. Some have a problem with the way inspections are being conducted for permitted systems on lots smaller than three acres. Others pointed to various forms of cheating being done to get around the three-acre exemption. And, they complained of being undercut by unlicensed operators who put in shoddy systems.
Since Howell County is one of only about eight counties in Missouri which does not currently perform its own inspections, a state inspector must come from Springfield to approve any permitted system, Shaw said. He acknowledged that this is "a real hassle'' for installers and for homeowners waiting to move in, since a dug system must lay uncovered until inspected, which has been known to take six to seven weeks. Operators have to move equipment twice, and rain can collapse trenches and mess up what had been a good job. The long wait "is the biggest complaint'' Shaw says he's heard from installers.
Robs Backhoe Service owner Robert Bowers, West Plains, used strong words to denounce state inspector Russell Lilly, Springfield. "I get a soil morphology test done on my jobs. I go through proper channels and do it by the book. But he (Lilly) comes here and condemns three of my jobs, and costs me $6,000 to- $8,000 out of my pocket,'' Bowers told the group.
Soil scientist Brad McKee, Alton, added, "I've quit making recommendations, because they're being overruled (by the state inspector).''
Shaw said Health Department environmental public health specialist Justin Frazier will be doing inspections if the ordinance is passed. "We think we can have less than a week turn-around time, and do it at half the cost,'' as compared to the state inspections, he said.
"This ordinance will give us local control,'' Shaw continued. "If you don't like how our inspector is doing the job, you know where to find us.'' The health department board meets 6:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month.
Another installer said he "wants everyone to play by the same rules.''
Licensed Missouri installers who have gone through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) training are fined if they are caught installing a substandard system, even if it is put on a lot larger than three acres. An unlicensed installer found putting in that same system is not fined, but only has to go through classes to get licensed, he said.
It is unfair, Shaw said, that licensed installers are "being undercut by some guy from Arkansas who is putting a 500-gallon system on a seven-bedroom home. You know it's happening.''
As for the existing three-acre exemption, people are getting around that rule in a number of ways, said Shaw. They build a house on a five-acre lot, chop off that acre, then build another house on the remainder, and chop off that acre. In other cases, reputable installers have gotten in trouble when the owner flat lies to them, saying they own more than three adjoining acres, when in fact they do not, he said.