New state septic tank regulations presented

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Revamped state regulations guiding the inspection, maintenance and installation of septic tanks were “expected” by County Manager Dick Smith. But he was nonetheless “stunned” by the scope of the initiative when it was presented at Wednesday’s County Commission meeting.

Chairman Ed Perales called the stipulations “extreme.” But state officials insist the changes, slated for implementation beginning August, are necessary to prevent the contamination of ground water supplies.

“Septic tanks have polluted more wells than all other forms of pollution combined,” said Tom Brandt, acting manager for the state liquid waste program.

Brandt is all too familiar with the health hazards caused by infected water supplies. A blood disorder known as the “blue baby syndrome,” known to cause death in infants, is traceable to water supplies contaminated by nitrate, a researched carcinogen and by-product of ammonia, found in human waste. Brandt said only one “blue baby syndrome” case has been documented in the state, but he expects countless other infants and adults may suffer from nitrate absorption. E. coli and other harmful bacteria can also make their way into ground water supplies if a septic tank is not properly installed and well maintained, Brandt said.

Local homeowners and developers will be most affected by the new stipulations, Brandt said. In the future, lots smaller than 1/2 acre, will need to be equipped with a highly expensive “advanced treatment septic system,” reminiscent of city waste treatment systems. Those systems can range between $8,000 and $10,000, where a traditional system only goes for $3,000, professional septic system installers have said.

Additional stipulations will apply to tank installations in lots smaller than 3/4 acre. Other changes include a revamped permit system for all installation and maintenance. Before a tank-equipped property changes hands, Brandt said, the system must be inspected.

“We are just trying to do things to improve the water conditions for our future and our present — to keep contamination from our water sources. We had to look at a holistic approach for the whole state and try to come up with regulations that will be fair to everybody,” said Allan Sena, natural science manager at the Clovis office of the New Mexico Environment Department, who attempted to educate the public about new regulations in a series of public meetings.

Sena and other officials said the state regulations come partially at the urging of Realtors, who reported a surge in new homeowner complaints, generated by septic tank problems at newly purchased homes.

Jerry Cass, owner of Town and Country Real Estate, Inc., embraces the changes.

In the past, Cass said, rural septic tank systems were largely regulated by banks, which required inspections before issuing loans. In other cases, Realtors paid to have the systems monitored before sale of a property. Now, Cass said, there will be a greater system of accountability, and that, he said, “isn’t anything negative.”

The new regulations, however, have at least one septic tank installation company concerned.

“They are trying to protect the groundwater, which is a good thing … But if someone is being forced to do something, it isn’t necessarily a good thing,” said Joe Terrell, owner of Eastern New Mexico Septic Systems.

Terrell said many government regulations are ineffective due to lack of enforcement.

“As far as raising the standards, I don’t think we need to. They just need to increase enforcement” of current regulations, Terrell said.

Plans are in the works to have enough state-approved-inspectors to enforce the health oriented codes by 2007, Brandt said.