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Smell test: Will county relax septic system rules?

The stench of new statewide septic ordinances wafted through the courthouse halls Wednesday as Hubbard County commissioners got their first whiff of the proposed changes.

Some turned up their noses.

It began two years ago when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency rewrote the rules that govern septic systems, placements and instructions.

The state adopted the rules one year ago, which MPCA is still fine-tuning after a lengthy comment period.

"These rules are far reaching," said Hubbard County environmental specialist Scott Navratil. Plumbing and sewer contractors weighed in.

"We wanted to make sure the guys going through that, working in that field, made comments to list things they didn't like about it, things they felt were too restrictive, too expensive," Navratil said.

Once the rules were adopted, counties were required to adjust their ordinances accordingly. That's what's occurring now. The local rules must be adopted by the time the new septic laws go into effect in 2010.

The Hubbard County Planning Commission has been tinkering with those septic system ordinance changes and has made recommendations that would loosen new installations of septic systems.

"They're talking about adopting, since the state has rewritten the rules and the state has gone to more restrictive rules all along, they may as well adopt their rules," Navratil said.

Hubbard County's septic system rules have always been more stringent than the state's and that's what sparked a heated debate.

Two such provisions in Hubbard County's current ordinance, a four-foot vertical separation requirement between the bottom of a drain field (the treatment area) and the seasonally saturated soil; and a 150-foot horizontal setback requirement may undergo change.

The Planning Commission voted 6-2 recently to change the vertical separation to three feet on all lakes, in keeping with the new state law. It recommended 6-2 to change the setback requirement to 75 feet on recreational development lakes only. It would affect 76 of the county's 200+ lakes.

And when those proposals came before the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners Wednesday they received a mixed reaction.

"Scientific evidence doesn't support a four-foot separation at all," said commissioner Dick Devine in urging adoption of the proposed rule. "I could never figure out why we were the only ones doing it. We're forcing this on taxpayers and creating hardships."

"It's costing people a lot of money" unnecessarily, said commissioner Cal Johannsen. "Scientific data indicates you can pour pee through three feet of sand and drink it," he added, questioning the environmental reason for the stricter requirement.

Commissioner Don Carlson disagreed. "The e coli, the phosphates, the nitrates are not screened out," he protested. "This is a huge issue. We have four lakes in this county that are presently impaired. The state will force us to clean them up."

"I don't think so," Johannsen replied. "They haven't proved sewers are causing impaired lakes. It could be natural causes. What takes phosphorus out of lakes?"

"I don't know so don't put it in," Carlson retorted.

Robinson said additional requirements, that drain fields located on sandy soil must be pressurized to spread moisture evenly thoughout, will be costly for homeowners to comply with.

He worries mostly about the 75 foot setback requirements. He said it could render some lots "unbuildable."

If two property owners on a beach locate their septic tanks in similar spots on their lots, then place their wells nearby, the property owner in between those lots might not be able to locate a well or septic system anywhere on the property because it would be too close to the neighbors' systems.

"That's the reason we went with the 150 feet so everyone's sewer would be in the back and everyone's well would be in the front and all lots would be buildable then," he said.

Robinson, a semi-retired plumber, said septic systems built in 2011, one year after the laws go into effect, will cost twice what it would be to install one today.

And with a 75-foot setback "everybody's going to have their septic between the house and the lake because your house has to be back 100 feet," Robinson said.

And that's what concerns Carlson, a passionate environmentalist. He doesn't want even the remote possibility of runoff into lakes, or leaching of harmful substances near the lake, to cause water quality issues down the road that, like a permanent odor, would be difficult to remove.

"To me, if 75 to 80 percent of the lots are already built on and they were able to comply, there isn't any reason the new ones couldn't comply," Robinson said, siding with Carlson.