By JOHN FLOWERS
ADDISON COUNTY — The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will soon hire a consultant to do an inventory of existing septic systems that are working in difficult clay soils and determine whether those systems could be more widely used in Addison County.
Many local building projects and subdivisions remain on hold in the county due to the inability of developers to put in septic systems that will pass state permitting standards. Much of that has to do with Addison County clay, a largely impermeable substance that can lead to sewage effluent surfacing on top of the leach fields — something that is prohibited under state rules.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, successfully lobbied this year for the $90,000 that will be used to pay for the septic system inventory and a study aimed at determining whether more conventional systems could be adapted — and permitted — for Addison County soils.
It used to be that developers of residential lots could skirt state septic requirements if they built on lots in excess of 10 acres. But the state closed that so-called 10-acre loophole in 2002. That’s left many building projects in limbo in the Addison County.
“It feels like we’re almost closed for business in Addison County,” said Ayer, a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Ayer and other Addison County lawmakers have spent the past four years urging the DEC to study and approve alternative septic systems for use in difficult clay soils. That effort has not been very successful to date, but it has not been for a lack of effort, according to DEC Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg.
The DEC last summer charged a technical advisory committee with looking at alternative septic systems that could work in difficult soils — even those that are incapable of holding water underneath the ground for the entire calendar year. Officials looked at “drip-disposal” and “storage-in-dose” systems, both designed to release effluent into the soil at a slower rate.
While DEC officials believe at least one of these alternative systems could be permitted for residential use, the estimated cost is being placed at $35,000 to $55,000.
“If you’re looking at something the average Vermonter can afford… $50,000 might as well be $1 million,” Wennberg said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
The price may come down in five to 10 years, according to Wennberg. But at the same time, Wennberg and Ayer know Addison County residents are not going to want to wait that long. That’s why Ayer lobbied this year for the inventory and study of existing conventional systems that are working in the county. Once that is known, it is hoped that the DEC could change its rules for issuing septic permits to accommodate the unique soils in this county.
“We want to figure out the characteristics of these systems that allow them to work in these soils,” Ayer said.
The DEC will soon solicit proposals from private consultants interested in performing the septic system inventory and study, which will sun the course of a year.
Wennberg cautioned that the study will have to yield some useful and convincing data, in order for conventional systems to get permitting clearance for broader use in Addison County. He said the information has to give the DEC compelling reasons why it should change the rules.
“Just proving that these systems work is not enough,” Wennberg said. “We need to know why they work.”