A proposal to charge an annual fee to everyone with a septic tank in King County is stirring anger among rural residents. Some opponents want proof that the septic systems are significant contributors to water pollution. Others are concerned about property rights.

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About 85,000 septic systems serve homes and businesses in King County, but health and environmental officials don’t know what condition they’re in or whether they’re leaking human waste into the groundwater or nearby streams and creeks.

Inadequately treated sewage may contaminate drinking water and aquifers and has closed shellfish beds and beaches around Puget Sound.

But a proposal by Public Health — Seattle & King County to impose an annual fee of up to $37 to fund an inspection and monitoring program for on-site sewage systems is facing fierce opposition from some rural residents who say there’s no evidence that they’re a source of the problem.

Public meeting on proposed septic system fee

Public Health — Seattle & King County is holding the final meeting on its septic systems operations and maintenance proposal.

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Snoqualmie Valley Alliance Church, 36017 S.E. Fish Hatchery Road, Fall City

“My septic system isn’t the reason the salmon aren’t coming back,” said Warren Iverson, who runs a convenience store on the Issaquah-Hobart Road in unincorporated King County. Both his home and the store are served by on-site septic systems.

He thinks the storm runoff from roads and sewer overflows is a more likely source of pollution in Puget Sound. And he fears that, once established, an annual fee will only go up.

“What’s $23 or $40 today will become $300 or $400 in five years because they didn’t anticipate the enormity of this challenge,” Iverson said.

Almost 600 residents turned out last week for a meeting in Maple Valley, with the overwhelming majority angry at what they saw as government overreach and an apparent rush to adopt the new fee — which many labeled a tax — by next year.

The final public meeting on the proposal will be held Tuesday night in Fall City.

Last week Public Health notified the Metropolitan King County Council that it would delay its plan to put the proposal to a vote in July. Officials said the delay would give residents more time to respond and for the department to better explain the program’s provisions and the need for it.

Need for fee questioned

The State Department of Ecology has documented fecal coliform bacterial pollution in 203 waterway segments in King County.

The Puget Sound Partnership, a non-regulatory government organization charged with restoring the Sound’s health and water quality, said that 36,000 acres of commercial and recreational shellfish beds are closed due to fecal bacteria in the water. Currently, commercial shellfish harvesting is closed on parts of Vashon Island and is expected to close next year on Poverty Bay, which borders Des Moines and Federal Way.

Additional contamination “hot spots” in the Duwamish, Green, Cedar and Sammamish rivers and Little Bear Creek have been identified by Public Health’s Environmental Health Services Division.

Under state law, Public Health is required to manage and regulate on-site septic systems.

“The problem is water quality, which has the potential to affect human health. We need to do something about it,” said Ngozi Oleru, director of the division. She said that while on-site septic systems are not the only source of water pollution in the county, they do account for “some of the pollution.”

Oleru said the health department is considering either a flat fee of $32 a year or a tiered system that would charge between $23 and $37 a year.

Elected leaders from the county’s rural areas share some of the septic owners’ skepticism.

“It’s premature to adopt the annual fee and inspection requirements until they prove that septic systems are a significant contributor to pollution in Puget Sound,” said State Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah.

He and other opponents also are critical of the county for not cracking down on known polluters. On Vashon’s Quartermaster Harbor, for example, some septic systems drain directly into the water and have for decades, despite county enforcement attempts.

“I’d rather see the focus on the bad actors, the ones who are creating hot spots by directly discharging waste to the surrounding waters,” Magendanz said.

He also suggested that the combined sewage overflow problems in Seattle and King County, which discharged 1.1 billion gallons of untreated waste water into the Sound in 2014, are a larger source of pollution than rural county septic tanks.

Property rights raised

Septic owners are currently required to get their systems inspected every three years, but the county says dollar figures show that compliance is low.

Businesses that provide septic-inspection services and repairs are supposed to pay the county a $28 fee for each inspection. If one-third of all county septic systems were inspected each year, the health department estimates, it should receive about $800,000 in revenue. Instead, officials say, they got just $57,000 in inspection fees in 2015.

One goal of the proposed program would be to establish a reliable database of all the existing septic systems and inspection records and to create a low-interest loan fund to help owners make needed repairs.

One concern heard repeatedly during the Maple Valley hearing was that septic owners don’t want the county coming onto their property to inspect their systems. Health Department officials say the inspections would be performed by septic-maintenance professionals, with inspection reports forwarded to the county.

“It’s not our policy to intrude on private property. It’s not something we propose or seek to do,” said Robin Hill, project manager for the on-site sewer system operations and maintenance proposal.

Three other counties — San Juan, Whatcom and Clark — have instituted an annual fee on septic system owners. Two others, Thurston and Snohomish, are currently developing fee proposals.

“No doubt there are problems in the rural areas of King County,” said Ralph Svrjcek, a water-quality specialist with the state Department of Ecology. He said Public Health used to help ecology identify older homes with septic systems near water, but no longer do so.

“They don’t have the resources to help us check the status of those systems. They can’t even say this is an area to look at,” Svrjcek said.

Other officials charged with restoring Puget Sound waters say that water travels underground great distances, and the cumulative effect of failing septic systems can add contaminants miles and miles away.

“A properly functioning septic system is an important contributor to water quality,” said Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. “The part that gets lost is that the home­owner may not know the system is failing. The law requires inspection and maintenance of these systems, but the resources aren’t there.”

Not all rural homeowners with on-site sewage systems oppose the proposed fee and monitoring. Edie Jorgensen, who lives on the south side of Tiger Mountain near Hobart and was a minority voice at the Maple Valley hearing, said she regularly has her system pumped and inspected. But, she added, not everyone does.

“Forty bucks doesn’t seem so bad for finding out what septic systems might be leaking. There’s a social responsibility to not put your waste out on everyone else. Your property rights end at my nose,” she said.