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A Brief History of on-Site Wastewater Management

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A.R. Rubin

Professor and Extension Specialist

Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department

North Carolina State University

References to waste management programs extend back into Greek and Roman Mythology and the Bible. The Biblical reference is contained in Deuteronomy and this verse establishes a basis for the use of land as a receiver for waste. When asked, Moses tells his followers to go out away from camp and, using the spade on your weapon, dig a trench and take that which comes form thee and place it on the land. Why permit waste management activities? To protect the health of the public and the quality of the environment. With no effective permitting programs, waste management activities would be similar to those used in the middle ages, human waste would simply be deposited wherever convenient. That is unacceptable. In the latter part of the 18th century, the Safe Rivers and Harbors Act passed and this prevented the direct discharge of waste from ships in to Boston Harbor, unfortunately it did not apply to waste discharge from the land and the recently completed Boston Harbor cleanup has cost us over $500,000,000. One of the first programs to register environmental health professionals occurred in Virginia hundreds of years ago. A copy of the Charter is attached.

In more recent time – this century – the changes to and adoption of statutes and laws, rules and regulations, and local ordinances or codes addressing environmental and health issues have grown dramatically. Clearly the public is concerned about health and environmental issues and these concerns are reflected in local, state and federal legislation. Public or private concern and subsequent legislation drives these programs.

The history of on-site programs dates back to the early part of this century. The first publications developed by the federal government in the 1920’s to deal with on-site wastewater management issues addressed the design of septic tanks. In the early to mid 1950’s with the housing boom created by returning WWII veterans, design concerns addressed by the U.S.Public Health Servic included improved tank designs and the use of a percolation test to assess the hydraulic capacity of a site. Much of the early work was accomplished by Dr. J. T. Winneberger at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the 1960’s the Federal Government passed the first of the Clean Water Acts. This act established the USEPA and on the first of the EPA activities initiated soon after its formation was the development of the construction grant program for the development of wastewater infrastructure. The initial efforts funded by the EPA were sought programs to reduce the cost of public infrastructure. This resulted in passage of P.L. 92-500, The Clean Water Act Amendments of 1972. This federal program established an incentive program whereby communities could qualify for a large federal grant if the wastewater treatment technology proposed for a specific application was deemed an innovative or alternative technology. Onsite wastewater management systems are considered innovative and alternative and would qualify for I and A funds except the federal program to provide grants for wastewater management has been discontinued. Fortunately, the USEPA did recognize the importance of onsite wastewater management systems and did fund a considerable amount of excellent research dealing with onsite wastewater management systems. During the years that the EPA funded the research addressing onsite wastewater management issues, the focus of the onsite system went from a wastewater disposal alternative to a wastewater treatment system. The EPA recognizes that when properly sited, sized, designed, installed, operated and maintained, an onsite wastewater management system is a long term option for managing domestic, commercial, and industrial wastewater.

The realization that onsite systems could function effectively followed extensive research, much of it accomplished at the University of Wisconsin. Here in North Carolina the Triangle J Council of Governments received a multi-thousand dollar multi- year grant to study a variety of onsite systems. The project was funded through EPA Region IV as a part of the federal 208 program. The TJCOG program involved researchers from North Carolina State University, the State Department for Environmental Health and the Department of Environmental Management, the COG and local health departments. A variety of alternative onsite systems were constructed and monitored throughout the Triangle. Residential and commercial low pressure pipe systems, mound systems, recirculating sand filter systems, and the first residential spray irrigation systems were constructed through this effort. Many of the systems constructed in the late 1970’s through the TJCOG project remain in operation today. In addition, an onsite wastewater treatment system test site was constructed at the Lick Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Durham County where systems could be tested under controlled conditions. The information gleaned from the TJCOG project has been incorporated into state rules and regulations.

Today management programs have been developed to assure that the technologies developed and utilized to manage wastewater at or near its source function properly. Training programs have been developed to assure that there is a cadre of trained wastewater management professionals available to service systems on a routine basis. Rules and regulations continue to evolve to assure that onsite systems will remain viable management options for wastewater management well into the future. Management standards are currently under development to address all aspects of onsite wastewater treatment from the source and the wastewater quality through technologies available to training, certification, and long term system management. This last effort was recently initiated by the USEPA and it is recognition that onsite systems are viewed as a permanent part of the public wastewater management infrastructure.

Today the options available for onsite wastewater treatment systems include a variety of advanced treatment devices as well as the more traditional sub-surface systems consisting of a tank and a soil absorption component. Soon after beginning the research, EPA recognized that the concept of dosing and resting allowed systems to operate more effectively. Presently dosing and resting cycles are incorporated into the design of many onsite systems.

These onsite systems must be inspected and managed just as any other mechanical components required to support our lifestyle, to protect public health, to preserve property values, and to maintain or improve the quality of our environment. The purpose of professionalization in any endeavor is to assure that qualified individuals are involved in providing service. Efforts to professionalize this industry involve activities like this where we learn, share our experiences, exert pressure on our peers to do the job correctly, and communicate our concerns to others so that we can correct deficiencies we observe out there in the field.

Page Last Updated: 7 years ago
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