It’s almost like the Government wants everyone to live in the cities so we can be more easily governed.

Published October 16, 2013, 12:00 AM

St. Louis County changing septic rules

Under pressure from rural residents and a mandate from the state, St. Louis County is seeking to make significant changes to its septic system rules, according to a plan unveiled Tuesday for public review and comment.

By: John Myers , Duluth News Tribune

A new septic system is installed at a St. Louis County home last year. County officials are proposing several changes in regulations for septic systems. (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency photo)

Under pressure from rural residents and a mandate from the state, St. Louis County is seeking to make significant changes to its septic system rules, according to a plan unveiled Tuesday for public review and comment.

The county is responding to a legislative mandate that all 87 counties update their rules on how rural properties, which are not hooked up to municipal sewage treatment systems, deal with their own sewage.

The new county rules must be in place by Feb. 4.

The issue has been controversial, with St. Louis County officials working on the update since 2008, said Ted Troolin, the county’s environmental services director.

Rural residents have often complained that the current rules, written in 2000 and updated in 2008, are too strict, too cumbersome, and require overly expensive updates for new septic systems. Local officials have asked county commissioners for changes that are less intrusive, and a subset of four county commissioners from outside Duluth have been pushing the changes for years.

Minnesota has more than 544,000 septic systems across the state. St. Louis County has the most of any county at 33,196, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The proposed new rules call for “less restrictive compliance criteria” in some cases, broaden the use of holding tanks and change requirements for some homeowners when selling their property. The county says the new plans also allow more flexibility to approve locally designed septic treatment systems.

Holding tanks had been allowed only as a last resort for full-time residents that simply couldn’t find a workable treatment option. Under the new rules, however, residents could use holding tanks as their permanent solution. While cheaper to install, the tanks would need to be pumped out frequently and would cost far more in the long run, Troolin noted.

State officials also note that many municipal sewage treatment systems do not accept septic waste, making it hard to dispose of.

“But some county commissioners felt strongly that property owners should have that option,’’ Troolin said.

Another change allows systems that may not fit traditional specifications, such as mound size, but may be better suited for very wet environments, like much of St. Louis County’s lowlands.

The new rules will continue the county requirement that all septic systems be inspected when properties are put up for sale. Under the new rules, if that inspection finds the system is failing, the seller, buyer, or both would have to establish an escrow account to cover the cost of repairs or replacement before the sale can be concluded.

“The problem there is that, too often, the system wasn’t getting fixed even after the sale, and there was disagreement over who had to pay,’’ Troolin said.

If the system passes the inspection, the escrow would not be required.

Troolin said the proposed rules would strike a balance between making sure wastewater from rural homes does not harm drinking water or the environment, and address concerns that the current rules are too harsh on rural residents’ pocketbooks.

“I think we’ve found a good compromise to meet the concerns of the county commissioners who have worked on this and the goal of protecting human and environmental health,’’ Troolin said.

While counties have broad leeway in interpreting state septic standards, the PCA ultimately has regulatory jurisdiction to uphold state laws.

“We have a good give-and-take process to comment on their plans, and St. Louis County has a pretty good plan. I don’t see anything they are doing as’’ not meeting minimum state standards, said Barb McCarthy, PCA soil scientist in Duluth.

“No matter what we do, though, we’re talking about human health here. We aren’t going to let that go,” McCarthy said.

After public comments and comments from the PCA are considered, a revised version of the rules will be presented to the county Planning Commission for approval. The new rules would then go to the County Board for a public hearing and final approval.

The draft proposal is available at or by calling (800) 450-9278. Comments may be submitted through Dec. 9 to Mark St. Lawrence at or to St. Louis County Environmental Services Dept., 307 First Street South, Suite 115, Virginia, MN 55792.




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