Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Senate Environmental Committee Hears Need For Changing Sewage Facilities Act

The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee Tuesday held a hearing on issues and changes needed in the 1966 Sewage Facilities Act.  (Click Here to watch a video of the hearing.)
Dana Aunkst, DEP Deputy for Field Operations, outlined 8 specific areas of change DEP would like the General Assembly to consider--
— Counties, and their planning commissions or regional planning entities, should have a greater role in the sewage planning process.
— Changes to the Act should include requirements for third party testing and certification of new onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems.
— As municipalities develop and the density of their populations grows, the need for onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems to function well over the long term as permanent infrastructure has become evident.
— Changes to the Act should require that all municipal official sewage plans be evaluated and either adopted or readopted by the local agency at least every ten years.
— The Department has experienced, and is currently experiencing, some problems with sewage enforcement officers (SEOs). Specifically, revisions should include provisions for a more robust SEO continuing education program.
— Request removal of language related to fees, and, instead, authorize DEP to adopt fees by way of regulation.
— Believe it is past time to eliminate the ten-acre permit exemption. This exemption allows new land development without sewage facility planning on parcels ten acres or more in size that existed prior to January 10, 1987.
— Any revisions to the Act should address the Sewage Advisory Committee (SAC). The SAC's current size and composition need to be evaluated and modernized.
Duane Mowery, Chair of DEP’s Sewage Advisory Committee, said DEP has not actively involved the Sewage Advisory Committee in the development of regulations and policies in the sewage program for a long time.
“It has become abundantly clear to me that the only way to effect change in the SAC, which has become almost exclusively a reactionary creature, is to engage understanding legislative forces, or to be financially secure enough to bring an appeal to the Environmental Hearing Board thereby forcing the necessary change,” he concluded. He described this disconnect between the agencies as “one of the greatest challenges facing improvements to Act 537.”
Elam Herr, State Association of Township Supervisors, said DEP enforcement of municipality cooperation is not feasible due to unfair burdens on residents. He also said future legislation should include criteria for establishing when plant updates occur.
Regarding sewer systems, Herr said central collection systems are economically and technically impractical.
“There is insufficient population density to provide such systems at a reasonable cost to the residents,” he explained. “Funding for sewage system construction is limited and more is needed to meet the mandates to install or provide sewer service imposed by DEP,” he added.
He went on to make a series of other recommendations for changes.
Chris Wood, President of the PA Sewage Enforcement Officers Association, said the Act needs to be updated. He expressed concern and recommended changes to several definitions, including: Qualified Registered Professional Engineer; Qualified Registered Professional Geologist; Qualified Soil Scientist; Soil Mottling; The division of sewage disposal systems into Conventional, Alternate, and Experimental.
“The Department should be permitted to require municipalities to establish Operations and Maintenance programs to ensure the long-term operation of sewage disposal systems within the municipality,” said Wood. “However, the Department should be prohibited from requiring a municipality from imposing such a program on any sewage disposal system constructed prior to program enactment.”
Robert Wood, Owner of Real Estaters of Mansfield, requested the state allow alternative systems to be used for planning purposes throughout the Commonwealth. “By not allowing the use of alternate sewage systems for planning purposes, current and future  homeowners are being hindered from building a new home. It’s become increasingly more difficult for developers to plan new neighborhoods,” he said.
Bruce Willman, Certified Professional Soil Scientist, said the Act is effective, but highlighted specific sections of the Act the PA Association of Professional Soil Scientists are concerned with, including: definitions of qualified soil scientist, limiting zone, redoximorphic features, and soil mottling; Sewage Advisory Committee structure and soil mottling procedures
Julian Mazero, Associated Builders and Contractors Keystone Chapter, said the Act is an effective regulatory tool, but cited several issues stunting growth, including misinterpretation of regulations, lack of training, slow changing of regulations and guidance documents, and quick turnaround on permit application reviews.
“A relatively easy fix would be to provide more frequent training for both public and private persons within the wastewater field,” he said.
He echoed the desire for a comprehensive water resources planning approach. “Future comprehensive water resources planning process would benefit from a digital application and review process,” Mazero concluded.
Thaddeus Stevens, a member of DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council, said including alternate systems in the planning process is a worthy effort.
“I believe we can do that in a surgical manner and get it done promptly,” he added. “This is needed.  The systems work.”
He said language is available through the CAC for immediate consideration. Regarding comprehensive review, he said many things could be done through a lengthy and detailed process.
“I suggest you complete that surgical correction, and then take on the larger process,” Stevens concluded.
In his written remarks, Stevens included a letter the Citizens Advisory Council sent to both DEP Secretary Abruzzo in 2014 and current DEP Secretary Quigley this year outlining its concerns about the Act 537 Program.  [Unfortunately, copies of both letters are not on the CAC webpage because they were apparently lost in the transition to a new DEP website design.]
Stevens also pointed out DEP’s Sewage Advisory Committee has not met since March of this year and had a meeting canceled by DEP in September that was supposed to deal with Act 537 issues.
Copies of written testimony and a video of the hearing are available at the Committee’s webpage.
Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) serves as Majority Chair of the Committee and can be contacted by sending email to:  Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by sending email to:

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