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December, 2002

New Septic Policies Are a Paper Tiger
By Louis Nuyens

It was a very swift turn-about. Property owners across West Marin had been reaching to guard their pocketbooks and their homes after hearing of the County's presentation in Bolinas on proposed changes to Marin County septic system policies. Less than two weeks later, on 18 November 2002, Supervisor Steve Kinsey told the San Geronimo Valley Homeowners Association (SGVHA) and other attendees that the newly proposed policies will not be a threat, but an unprecedented gift: the new policies and regulations will look tough on paper, to throw state enforcement agencies off the scent of Marin septic problems, but a policy of non-enforcement will be law of the land.

Responding to a question from the audience, Kinsey also said, "People who still want to fly under the radar will be able to," just one of many statements along the same lines. The basic message to the State of California Regulators is, on paper, "Don't worry, we're doing our job." In person, to the property owners of Marin, the message was, "Don't worry, we're NOT going to do our job."

Neither message is good news, because in neither case is the County's position founded in or motivated by adequate scientific information of any kind. Neither the written proposals nor the verbal presentation were a comprehensive or cohesive package.

House of Mirrors

Clearly responding to criticism that followed the Bolinas meeting, Kinsey opened the San Geronimo Valley HA meeting by praising gravity-based septic systems, and saying that he personally distrusts alternative technologies. By the middle of the meeting, after it was obvious that those in attendance favored more alternative technology and experimental systems, Kinsey enthusiastically promoted alternative and experimental systems. By the end of the meeting, Kinsey had proudly announced that Marin County is vigorously lobbying state agencies to allow greater use of alternative systems.

Alternative and experimental systems vary greatly in cost, and all require significant maintenance and monitoring programs for many years, due to technical issues and/or unproven track records.

Where existing septic system enforcement policies can and should be brought up to date and made friendlier to property-owners, the definitions and practical applications of the proposed changes are incomplete and convoluted. Many property owner questions could not be answered during the San Geronimo Valley meeting. Frequently, Chief of EHS Phil Smith handed out business cards in lieu of answers to people asking for specific interpretation of the proposed policies. Supervisor Kinsey was unable to respond when one woman asked, "What exactly is replacing [existing policy]?"

The Operations and Maintenance Policy and the Amnesty Program elements of the proposal were hastily pulled off the discussion-table after the Bolinas public meeting. EHS staff and Kinsey noted that these were very complex tasks, and that research on funding and feasibility were continuing, and these two policies would not be enacted in January 2003, when repair criteria would, but perhaps much later. Indeed, after reviewing what the County offered, it appeared too premature to even be released for public comment.

Usually, an amnesty program is a trade-off, an incentive during an effort to start fresh and establish ongoing compliance; the recipients of amnesty can legalize without punitive fines and in return, the agency granting amnesty has a much easier job of getting back on the right foot. But here, amnesty is being given with no serious effort whatsoever by the County to establish ongoing compliance with public health and environmental protection regulations. Under Supervisor Kinsey's proposals, it seems that there will no element of seeking uniform compliance.

Kinsey skirted questions about growth-inducing aspects of his policy by referring vaguely to the Countywide General Plan process, currently about half-way done, and saying that laissez faire permissiveness would only be extended to existing residents, a position that might not be legally supportable; and completely ignored a question asking whether the County would be addressing agricultural run-off in addition to septic systems.

Kinsey cited a 2000 Civil Grand Jury report condemning EHS practices and failures as the motivation for creation of the Septic Technical Advisory Committee (SepTAC), the process out of which many of the proposals are said to have come.

Kinsey failed to say that the Grand Jury report was largely the result of allegations of inappropriate meddling by Kinsey himself in the enforcement activities of the Environmental Health Services (EHS) Department, and that it found the Board of Supervisors' lack of leadership ultimately responsible for the problems in EHS. (The Marin County Grand Juries of 2000, 2001, and 2002 all produced scathing reports criticizing the Board's lack of appropriate actions and its role in EHS failures.) He also failed to mention that the Grand Jury report supports bi-annual septic system inspections, which the Kinsey says the County will continue to ignore. (Bi-annual inspections are a regulation-they cannot be changed by a policy. Marin is still just ignoring the law.)

So What Do We Get?

We don't know, exactly. All we know is that we don't need to know. Whatever it is, it won't be enforced.

By and large Marin's property owners on septic systems acknowledge and accept that they have additional responsibilities with regard to protecting public health and safety and the natural environment. However, no one wants to go to significant expense unnecessarily or deal with unnecessarily restrictive regulations. Preying on these concerns is where Supervisor Kinsey's approach to this issue does the greatest disservice.

At one point, Supervisor Kinsey reassured the audience by touting his credentials as Marin's chief scofflaw, referring to his own illegal installation of a substandard system on his own property, as if to say, "Hey, I've built illegally on my own property. You don't have to worry about regulatory enforcement from me."

As seductive as the Kinsey pitch may be, it is neither responsible nor adequately founded on scientific approach. This is serious business-long-term non-enforcement is likely to result in significant health hazards, and possibly state regulatory intervention. A complete inventory of septic systems and routine testing are as essential as a well-structured amnesty program and programs to make any needed upgrades as affordable as possible.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That which is being offered by the County, both on paper and off the record, is a politically motivated mish-mash of poorly structured concepts and 'lip service.' The piecemeal approach being employed barely resembles real public process and is not going to make matters any better.

The County of Marin should regroup and put together a well-organized, comprehensive proposal, showing all proposed changes to as edits to existing policy and/or regulations.

 

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