New regulations on septic systems in Pennsylvania have some area officials worried it could wreak havoc on the economy.

— New regulations on septic systems in Pennsylvania have some area officials worried it could wreak havoc on the economy.

So much in fact, they have gotten the attention of Rep. Mike Peifer, who questioned the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) during a recent hearing.

The issue arose recently when the DEP came out with proposed regulations regarding septic systems. Many believe the regulations are unnecessary and will cause harm to the economy.

One of the most outspoken is Wayne County Commissioner Brian Smith, who is organizing opposition to the proposed new rules.

"This literally shuts down economic development," Smith said during a recent interview.

The biggest issue facing area residents is the proposed policy regarding on-lot sewage systems. The proposal could mean stringent new regulations in areas where there is "High Quality and Exceptional Value Watersheds."

Experts say that is just about all of Wayne and Pike counties.

Smith said last week he has been in contact with the elected officials who represent this area in Harrisburg. That includes Peifer, Sen. Lisa Baker and Rep. Sandra Major.

Apparently, it got the attention of Peifer, who questioned DEP Secretary Michael Krancer during a recent budget hearing in Harrisburg.

Peifer told Krancer the proposed regulations "could have a real negative economic effect" on this area.

Peifer also told Krancer he wants local residents to have their voices heard by the powers that be in Harrisburg.

"I want to make sure they have the opportunity to speak to you," said Peifer.

The new proposal is expected to be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin ( on March 2. That is the official publication of the state and will set in motion a comment period for the regulations.

Smith said he was assured by state officials that comment period would be for 60 days and not 30 days, which was originally proposed by DEP.

"It gives us a little bit of time," said Smith, though he stressed it is not a lot of time and there needs to be a major push in this region to fight the regulations.

The background

It appears a lawsuit against the state is the driving force behind the formation of the new regulations.

A presentation was made last month by DEP to the Sewage Advisory Committee outlining the proposed new regulations.

In the presentation, the case of Pine Creek Watershed Assoc v. DEP was outlined.

In that case,
DEP approved the use of septic systems in a small residential development in an exceptional value watershed in Pine Creek in Berks County.

The approval of the septic systems was appealed to the Environmental Hearing Board (EHB) on the basis that water quality in Pine Creek would not be properly maintained and protected under Chapter 93 antidegradation requirements.

The DEP used a groundwater plume analysis using a model to design constructed wetlands to assert that nitrate would not reach the creek because the natural wetland present on the site would effectively remove the nitrate.

But in November 2011, the EHB ruled the model used by DEP "was not appropriate."

EHB then rescinded the plan and DEP was required to pay the attorney fees of the watershed group.

According to the DEP presentation, here is the problem: "The Pine Creek decision establishes a legal and scientific standard that is extremely difficult to meet, thereby jeopardizing any future development using septic systems in HQ and EV watersheds."

And therein lies the problem.

The proposal

DEP is now proposing that for on-lot septic systems, utilizing "best management practices" with "nitrate removal efficiencies established through scientific research is the best approach."

That, says Smith, is the big issue and it could mean major problems for any new developments in this region. That includes residential and commercial.

The new proposals would require large set-back areas from streams and rivers. In most cases, a ditch can be considered a stream, thus forcing huge lots under the regulations.

Lot sizes could be up to 11 acres.

Also, the requirements could mean greater costs when it comes to installation and maintenance of septic systems. Those are called "denitrifying septic systems."

In its own report, DEP says about these systems: "Established technology, but has disadvantage as an engineered system that has a higher capital cost and requires ongoing maintenance."

The report also outlines "existing challenges" which it says "become more important" in considering the new regulations.

Those include:

• Implementation of sewage management plans.

• Long-term maintenance of septic systems.

• Establishment and permanency of riparian buffers.

In the summary, the DEP report says that best management practices "are needed to protect and maintain water quality" in the areas outlined. It states that "revisions and regulations are being considered" to support this approach.

Lawsuit woes

For Peifer, he said that offering regulations based on lawsuits is one of the problems.

Peifer said "lawsuits have an adverse effect on what we are doing."

He also asked Krancer if the state should set aside money to fight the outcomes of lawsuits.

"When does the state appropriate funds to support what we are doing is adequate?" asked Peifer.

"We have confidence in the science we are using," said Krancer, who added that DEP is "not a closed system."

Krancer also said that "we do live in a world today" where "judicially related decisions translate into policy."

"At some point we need to challenge these court rulings," said Peifer.

At that point, the hearing changed subjects, however, Peifer indicated he will continue to press DEP on this issue. He also said a local group of officials from northeast Pennsylvania will testify before the DEP to give their concerns about the new regulations.

Nitrate issue

The biggest issue regarding the proposed regulations seems to focus on nitrate levels.

And that is something local officials say makes no sense.

Will Whitehead of Kiley and Associates in Lakeville said recently "extensive" testing has been done in Wayne and Pike counties and "there is really not a problem" with nitrates in the water.

Another point which many in the region have made is the fact the proposed regulations will impact northeastern Pennsylvania very hard simply based on water quality.

A look at the map shows that nearly all of Pike and Wayne counties have high quality water, meaning that's where the regulations are going to be the most stringent.

Smith said he believes this area is being punished because people have been good stewards of the land and water.

Smith said he is frustrated with the DEP and believes the stringent regulations will drive people out of the state instead of inducing them to come here and develop homes and businesses.

Smith said DEP officials "don't appreciate the economic stress on the public and the difficulty they are laying on us."

To combat the problem, Smith is now organizing a region-wide group where he hopes to line up experts to make presentations to the elected officials.

Smith believes that is the only way anything can get done when it comes to combating the proposal by the DEP.

He has been contacting various experts in the field as well as elected and appointed representatives in an effort to coordinate that meeting.

Though a date has not yet been set, Smith said he is hoping it happens in the very near future since the proposal is expected to be published this week by the DEP.