RD39 - Long-Range Plan for Onsite Sewage

Executive Summary:
Virginia Code § 32.1-163.2 requires the Board of Health (the Board) to develop and revise a five-year plan for the handling and disposal of onsite sewage. The Board must report to the Governor and the General Assembly every five years on the status of the onsite sewage program in Virginia and the health department’s long-range plan. This report describes the Virginia Department of Health’s (VDH) onsite sewage and water supply program.

The activities of the Division of Onsite Sewage, Water Services, Environmental Engineering, and Marina Program’s (the Division) directly support the mission of VDH (to promote and protect the health and wellbeing of all Virginians), as well as the vision of VDH (to make Virginia the healthiest state in the nation). By assuring that people have safe and adequate drinking water and safe recreational water, the Division intentionally improves health by preventing human exposure to disease from sewage or excessive nutrients. The Division measures success and outcomes, builds relationships, educates, and creates policies that improves health as it relates to water, sewage and nutrient pollution. The Division’s values include:

• Providing excellent customer service, treating everyone with honesty, dignity and respect;
• Upholding VDH’s ethical standards at all times;
• Enjoying our work serving individuals and communities;
• Understanding the limits of the Division’s authority and always working within the law, regulation, and official agency policy.
• Always keeping people informed; and,
• Providing customers with due process to challenge adverse decisions.

The Division ensures that agency regulations and policies are enforced appropriately and consistently throughout the Commonwealth. This requires clarifying and standardizing processes based on appropriate goals and metrics, training staff based on the standardized processes, and performing quality assurance and control to ensure goals and metrics are met. To this end, the Division has a specific work unit focused on standardization, training, and quality assurance to ensure policies and procedures are adequately and appropriately adhered.

The agency strives to work with property owners to repair failing sewage systems within 60 days of discovery. Currently, about 45% of failing sewage systems are repaired within 60 days of discovery statewide. Data collection and dissemination will continue to improve over the next five years as staff applies more focus in this area. The Division has other goals over the next five years, including:

• Start accepting applications and payments online;
• Making onsite sewage system and private well records available online;
• Creating a complete electronic inventory and record of all onsite sewage systems and private wells in the Commonwealth;
• Expanding efforts to incorporate onsite sewage system and private well data into community health assessments; and
• Expanding opportunities to help low and moderate income populations with the repair of failing onsite sewage systems.

Over the next five years, the Division anticipates more resources and focus will be applied to issues of concern related to groundwater quality and management. Recently, the agency has been involved in such topics as uranium mining, coal ash disposal, impacts from industrial activities, lead in drinking water, fracking and natural gas development, groundwater depletion in the coastal plain physiographic province, water and graywater reuse, and a number of other topics of importance. To apply current resources in these emerging topic areas, the Division believes resources must be redirected away from providing soil evaluations and designs for onsite sewage systems and sanitary surveys for private well development.

For over 50 years, local health departments throughout the Commonwealth have provided evaluation and design services for onsite sewage systems and private wells. However, this is changing. Over the last two decades, site evaluations and designs for onsite sewage systems and private wells have slowly shifted toward more private sector service providers. During the 2016 session, the General Assembly passed House Bill 558 (HB 558) which required the State Health Commissioner to develop a plan to reduce and eliminate evaluation and design services provided by VDH for onsite sewage systems and private wells. As reported in VDH’s response to HB 558 of the 2016 General Assembly Session:

The strategic vision of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is to shift evaluation and design services for onsite sewage systems (OSS) and private wells to the private sector in an orderly manner so limited VDH resources can be focused on improving public health and groundwater supplies. VDH should not provide evaluation and design services when and where a sufficient number of licensed private sector professionals are available to perform evaluation and design services. VDH should focus its limited resources on population health and strengthen its efforts in health monitoring, data collection and dissemination, community health assessments, creating a complete inventory of wells and sewage systems throughout the Commonwealth, understanding viral and nutrient impacts to drinking water and recreational water, providing quality assurance inspections of private sector work, educating the public on operation and maintenance needs and drinking water quality, developing necessary policies to improve health, and providing reasonable enforcement and programmatic oversight. VDH cannot currently perform these higher priority needs to the extent necessary because the law requires VDH to perform soil evaluations and designs.

The strategic vision encompasses VDH having a more traditional regulatory role. VDH is unique among state and federal agencies in that it provides some of the same services offered in the private sector. VDH’s dual role of service provider and regulator creates numerous difficulties with enforcement, plan review, and work product expectations. The strategic vision includes VDH providing adequate programmatic oversight with a proper “check and balance” system.