Local health authorities who administer local codes and guidelines are the backbone of public health protection in the United States.  As any local health department sanitarian will tell you, the real work of protecting the public health and the environment is done at the local level.  Like our democratic system of government, health authorities are subject to rules and regulations from other entities (e.g. federal and regional), but local sanitarians are the only ones really in position to have a direct impact on people’s lives and to see the results of their efforts first-hand.  At any given time, local health authorities can be called to inspect food service operations, help troubleshoot a wastewater treatment plant or testify regarding the impact of a building permit, sometimes all in the same day.  This broad diversity of responsibility requires that public health professionals rely on tried and true methods to perform their jobs.  Local guidelines have grown out of this need to figure out what works for a wide range of objectives.

The down side of developing local guidelines by practical experimentation is that local areas with similar conditions can end up with very different public health guidelines.  Particularly in the environmental health field, local codes in one area can have a dramatic effect on environmental conditions in surrounding areas.  Public health professionals at all levels are recognizing the need and benefits of increasing the consistency of local codes.  A general consensus has developed throughout North America that local sewage regulations should include the following elements:

  • A preliminary site evaluation, including detailed soil analysis
  • Performance-based design standards for treatment systems, including third party evaluation and certification of proprietary products
  • Installation oversight that includes contractor registration and licensing to insure that treatment systems are properly installed
  • A means to assure that periodic operational assessments of system operation and routine preventive maintenance are performed by a qualified service technician
  • An established and open process for the testing and approval of new systems and technologies that encourage innovation

For maximum effectiveness, local regulations should also recognize the differences between technologies and write their rules accordingly.  Non-mechanical systems, like septic tanks, should be required to use an effluent filter and should be inspected every two years.  Electro-mechanical systems (using pumps, timers, etc.) must be serviceable from grade and evaluated at least once per year.  Proprietary aerobic treatment units should be maintained and serviced every six months.  Peat filters and some types of sand filters should be inspected every three months.  Other emerging technologies that have not been third party certified may require assessment more frequently to be certain the process is operating as designed.  This proactive approach is the best way to insure that all onsite treatment systems are installed, operated and maintained properly.

The future of local regulations lies in coordinating with federal and regional guidelines to be certain that wastewater codes protect public health and the environment.  The USEPA has published voluntary Guidelines for Management of Onsite/Decentralized Wastewater Systems, with the stated purpose “to assist communities in establishing comprehensive management programs for onsite/decentralized wastewater systems to improve water quality and protect public health.”  These Guidelines are not intended to supercede existing federal, state and local laws and regulations.  As these guidelines are voluntary, USEPA proposes no further federal regulations at this time.  To view the Voluntary Guidelines click here.

Even though water covers 71% of the surface of the earth, only about 0.003% of the total is usable, fresh water.  The cooperation of regulatory officials at all levels of public health is needed to sustain local guidelines that reflect the best of new technologies, management practices and environmental protection.

The USEPA has published an update of their ONSITE WASTEWATER TREATMENT SYSTEMS MANUAL.  This publication, otherwise known as the “Purple Manual,” is a widely used reference for the design and application of wastewater treatment technology.  Norweco is cited in the acknowledgements as making a significant contribution to the development of this document.  This document can be found directly on the USEPA website here.

We have come a long way

Soon after Thomas Crapper and Company perfected the flush toilet circa 1872, local sewage disposal regulations became a point of interest for local, regional and federal governments as well as healthcare providers.  With approximately 25% of the households in the U.S. and almost 40% of new home construction utilizing onsite wastewater treatment systems, local regulations governing their use have continued to evolve.

Early in our nation’s history, diluting untreated or partially treated wastewater into a lake, river or stream was commonplace.  However, the evolution of technology, combined with increasing population density and global environmental concerns, required that regulations evolve as well.  As our population and the population of the world increases, one thing is certain; the management of wastewater treatment systems with improved technology will continue to play an ever increasing role in the protection of our environment.