Citizen Activism Results in a Bill Passed to Protect Septic System Owners!
By Cindy Alia
April 13, 2019
Congratulations are due to citizens for their citizen activism! Citizens can make changes to law through hard work and dogged pursuit to better the lives of people trying to work and live under the regulatory system.
COOMWA, a citizens’ action group formed to protect citizens use and management of their septic systems, along with Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights have worked to promote and ultimately have passed, a bill in the state legislature. SB 5503, sponsored by Senators Das, Fortunato, Takko has been through the legislative process in Olympia, and is now law! Here is a link to the bill Certification of Enrollment as passed the legislature on March 6, 2019!
To say we are thrilled with the passage of the bill is an understatement! Much thanks goes to the many people who carried out their duty to call legislators and tell them they wanted this bill passed!
This bill is the result of citizen activism which began in 2016 with the local health jurisdiction of King County deciding to create in rule a rather arbitrary fee of $40.00 per septic system in order to cover agency costs. The moved clearly did not sit well with hundreds of rural King County residents who turned out to three different county/citizens meetings in numbers of over 1600. COOWA and CAPR worked to get the word out the meetings were to take place and citizens could have their voices heard! They and all these citizens beleived the fee was unjutifiable and possibly outside the authority of the health jurisdiction. They demanded to know why the fee would be assessed and what it was for. The outstanding turnout at these meetings caused members of COOMWA and CAPR to look a little deeper into local and state law to see how the law read and what it required or authorized. These members spoke to many people who told their stories of how law was being mis-interpreted and used to cause great expense and hardship when trying to install or repair their systems.
Problems had been reported by citizens regarding local health jurisdictions rule-making and the authority granted local health jurisdictions through the state board of health. The local jurisdictions were requiring fees that were not tied to specific services which was prohibited by law in RCW. This led to COOMWA and CAPR investigating RCWs and WACs covering septic systems. It was found the WACs were lacking in many aspects that property owners objected to. Prohibitively expensive system upgrades were being required in some jurisdictions and permits were tied to monitoring contracts even though law explicitly requires the owners of the systems to bear responsibility for their systems. Some jurisdictions were also requiring easements for the entire system, and claiming those easements allowed them egress onto properties without notification of property owners.
The research carried out by COOMWA and CAPR ultimately led to crafting bill language to counter these problems, and the Senators and Representatives sponsoring and supporting the OSS (septic system) bills. The bills have corrected the problems with WACs promulgated by the state board of health that citizens objected in this way:
Failing On-Site Sewage Systems. SBOH rules must:
give first priority to repairing and second priority to replacing an existing conventional OSS;
not impose more stringent performance requirements of equivalent OSS on private entities than public entities;
and allow repair of an OSS using the least expensive alternatives that meet standards and is likely to provide comparable or better long-term sewage treatment and effluent dispersal outcomes.
Inspections of On-Site Sewage Systems. SBOH rules must:
require coordination between the owner and certified professional inspector or public agency prior to accessing the OSS;
require authorization by the OSS owner for inspection by a certified inspector or public agency unless the LHJ obtains an administrative search warrant following existing procedures;
and forbid LHJs from conditioning OSS permits with requirements for inspections or maintenance easements of OSS located on a single property servicing a single dwelling.
The bill has been passed, but the job is not completely over. The activists who worked hard to get this bill passed are continuing their work by attending stakeholder meetings of the Washington State Health Department to oversee the current round of rule-making and working to protect septic owners during that process. This work will take two to three years to complete and will ultimately require public comment before it is passed into law through a Washington Adminstrative Code (WAC) which is our state's form of administrative law. COOMWA is keeping in communication with the citizens who attended the meetings in King County so all are well-informed of what is happening in law-making and rule-making. Citizen activism at its best!
WACs are regulations of the executive branch agencies issued by authority of statutes, statutes are enacted by the legislature and become part of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW)s. Like legislation and the Constitution, regulations are a source of primary law in Washington State. The WAC codifies the regulations and arranges them by subject or agency. The online version of the WAC is updated twice a month. There is always work for the ever vigilant citizen activist! One way to protect your property rights is to understand and review WACs and their updates, rule-making, and policies to be sure they are operating within the law rather than above or outside of the law.
Authority for lawmaking is provided the legislature through our form of governance, the representative republic. Our State Constitution reads thus:
SECTION 1 POLITICAL POWER. All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.
Governance is derived from the people through our legislators. That authority for creating law is to be representative of the people. Too often as that authority is filtered through legislative statute through administrative process of agencies and their authority given to them by our legislators, it is weakened, misinterpreted, and mis-applied. When that authority to make rules is passed in turn to local jurisdictions it can at times become unrecognizable as compared to the original legislative intent. Citizen activism is most likely the best way to correct poorly applied legislative intent.