Volume 45 Number 5
Texas WQA Report on Progress in Septic or OSSF Rule
This whole thing has been quite an ordeal!! One thing it has taught me is that the wheels of bureaucracy move very, very slowly!!
Another is that it is much better to nip something like this in the bud, before it becomes a Rule, but this requires constant vigilance on a number of fronts.
What started as a great legislative session for us ended up being a minor nightmare, which in fact is still ongoing.
In the Spring of 2001, we, the Texas WQA, were feeling pretty good as we had just gotten a bill passed that reauthorized our Residential Water Treatment Facility Operators program to be the Water Treatment Specialists (WTS) licensing program. We also dodged a bullet by avoiding a move from the TNRCC (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission) over to an agency less responsive and less sensitive to water and health issues called the TDLR—or Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (this issue again is on the agenda in this current session, but that's another story). We had some good friends at the TNRCC who coached us in some of this and we were feeling pretty good about everything.
Then, out of the blue, in September of 2001, one of our members called up asking about a new rule that the local inspector said was in effect which banned water softeners and reverse osmosis systems from draining into OSSFs—Onsite Sanitary Sewage Facilities or, as we know them, septic tanks. We had not heard of such a thing, so we called the TNRCC's Septic Division and, lo and behold, they had recently, in June of 2001, passed a new rule that banned our industry from draining water softeners and reverse osmosis systems into septic systems, effective Sept. 1, 2001.
We immediately demanded a meeting with them, at which we found out that they had "intended" to include all stakeholders in this new rule, but had “forgotten” to contact us. Unfortunately, even though our WTS program was right down the hall from the OSSF folks, no one was alerted to the rule and it slipped right past us. The OSSF folks said they had some "concern" about the volume of water going into septic systems or as they called it the “hydraulic loading,” and about the effects of sodium on the digestion process and on the soils in the drainfield. We had taken copies of the WQA-sponsored, but independent studies done in the late 1970s by NSF International in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Though they were aware of them, they said they were "old" and not necessarily credible. We asked if they had newer scientific evidence showing different results, and though they cited a couple of Internet write-ups on newer studies in Australia and elsewhere, could not give us a definitive study to refer to. The Australian study turned out to be one on washing machine wastes and was inconclusive at best. They DID express an interest in working with us or the WQA or NSF in performing a newer study, but so far this rather complicated venture has not been brought about.
I would like to thank Joe Harrison who made at least two trips down to Austin to help educate the OSSF boys, as well as Carlyn Meyer and Pete Censky who have offered good advice on our tactics and strategy. Tom Bruursema from the NSF in Ann Arbor also was good enough to make a trip down, and was useful, as he had actually worked with these people in the past. At the TWQA, this has been a group effort between Rick Grace, Rocky Hoffman, Bill London, myself and others. Thanks to all for their help and support.
One key fact the TCEQ recited was that as far as they were aware, at least 17 percent of septic systems in Texas were thought to be failing at any given time. We are not positive of where the rule originated, but it likely had its genesis in their attempts to target a relatively easy source of wastes to regulate, as they could unlikely ever have gotten their hands around the washing machine or Jacuzzi industries. We told them in no uncertain terms that we thought this was an unfair targeting of our industry with absolutely no scientific proof—and they said they would “study it.” Finally, almost a year later, we were scheduled to give public comments on a motion they reluctantly made, due to our persistent complaints, to open the rulesmaking process back up to revisit this controversial rule. Over 50 of our members made the trip to Austin to either testify or lend physical support to our move to reopen the process. Not one person spoke against the reopening, so it was granted a short time later.
We were invited to Austin to meet with the Texas Commision on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in this rulesmaking process, and they presented us with a draft that included a laundry list of new requirements they thought were important including:
We noted our objections and our belief that we were being singled out unfairly—and they said they would "study" our position. Months go by with very little progress, except that they finally drop the necessity for NSF certification. The gallonage limit and need for a new permit remain—and we again voice our displeasure.
Though the rule has not been vigorously enforced, the training for inspectors does include the original Rule, so in isolated instances primarily where new septic systems need to be permitted, the inspectors have disallowed softeners. Also the word has gotten around, thanks to the "alternative" softener people, those with magnets and electro-chemical devices, that the Rule is on the books, and they use it in their website and other marketing. As a result, consumers with septics have been reluctant to buy softeners and indeed some sales have been lost.
In exasperation with the TCEQ, we have recently contacted our elected representatives and worked with them to craft a bill that would essentially trump the TCEQ rule if passed. Our legislative session in Texas lasts until June, so the outcome of this effort is yet to be decided.
Meanwhile, the wheels of bureaucracy turn very slowly, and the waiting game does not set well with the independent and entrepreneurial water dealers who want things done now. So, stay tuned for further developments. We are hopeful we can get this issue resolved in the near future. In the meantime, we advise constant vigilance of your state legislature and environmental quality agencies as well. You will save yourself a ton of grief!!
Thanks... I appreciate your time.
About the author Bob Boerner is president of Culligan Water Conditioning of San Antonio, Texas. He gave the above presentation March 19, 2003, during the Science Advisory Committee meeting of the 2003 WQA Convention in Las Vegas. He has earned the Water Quality Association's Certified Water Specialist, Level 5 designation. Boerner can be reached at (210) 226-5344 or email: BetoBrnr@aol.com