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New septic system policy slammed; Concern over costs of new technology

By Fritz Mayer
April 10, 2013

Pike and Wayne counties are literally awash in high quality (HQ) and exceptional value (EV) waters, and a policy being developed by the Department of Environmental Preservation (DEP) is intended to keep it that way. But many local officials have expressed the view that the policy is so restrictive it will kill development.

At the Pike County Commissioners meeting on April 3, the commissioners warned again about the negative impact of the law. Commissioner Matthew Osterberg said that in order to comply with the policy, a septic system would need to be located on a parcel of at least 11 acres for each individual septic system, and septic systems on smaller lots could result in additional costs of up to $25,000 to come into compliance.

The policy is being developed to keep nitrates from migrating from septic systems into ground water, but critics say there is no problem with nitrates in the area. Commissioner Rich Caridi said the safe level of nitrate as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 10 milligrams per liter. Caridi said he had his own well tested and the level was .04 milligrams per liter.

So, if there is no nitrate problem in the area, why is the DEP moving forward with this policy? The answer is linked with a case regarding HQ and EV waters in Berks County.

In 2006, DEP approved a septic system for a development in Berks County in the Pine Creek Watershed. The Pine Creek Watershed Association appealed the approval to the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board, which ruled that the method used to determine whether nitrates from the septic system would reach a creek were “not appropriate.”

According to a PowerPoint presentation prepared by DEP on February 8, “DEP’s approval of the plan was rescinded and DEP was required to pay the watershed group’s attorney fees.”

Further, under a paragraph labeled “problem,” the presentation says, “The Pine Creek Decision establishes a scientific standard that is extremely difficult to meet, thereby jeopardizing any future development using septic systems in high quality and exceptional value watersheds.”

Because of this, DEP is in the process of developing best management practices (BMPs) for septic systems in HQ and EV watersheds, as it has done with other possible sources of pollution, such as agricultural operations, general construction, resource extraction and waste management.

DEP is developing a number of best practices, such as the use of permeable reactive barriers buried underground, which allow some materials to pass through, but not others.