Senators clash over bill to allow more septic tanks over Guam’s main water source | News

Senator Chris Dueñas' House Bill 175-37, which would allow the use of septic tanks on certain quarter-acre lots, sparked much controversial debate during the legislative session on Thursday.

The stark differences of opinion can be summed up in the statements of Deputy Speaker of the House Tina Muña Barnes, a supporter of the bill, and Senator Sabina Perez, an opponent of the measure.

“Families just want to build on the land their parents left behind,” Barnes said.

“Guam is blessed with abundant water resources… we can lose them if we over-extract, contaminate or irreparably damage them,” Perez said.

Bill 175-37 would allow deceased property, or property that will be divided among heirs upon the death of their parents, to be subdivided into up to four 9,600-square-foot lots if they use a modern, nitrogen-reducing on-site disposal system, called a Type 4 system, certified by the Guam Environmental Protection Agency.

In his opening remarks, Dueñas said: “This bill is narrowly drafted, it corrects a serious injustice to the estate.”

He said that since the law restricting the use of septic tanks was changed five years ago, numerous families have come forward looking for a way to develop their inherited property.

But the board's chairman, Perez, had expressed deep concern about the environmental impacts of increasing land density over the Northern Lens Aquifer.

Despite their objection and despite the absence of a committee report, the bill was withdrawn from committee last week by a majority of the Rules Committee.

Perez argued Thursday that developing non-sewer-connected quarter-hectare lots within the groundwater protection zone, even with Type 4 nitrogen reduction systems, would result in a doubling or a hundredfold increase in wastewater loads.

She warned that GWA monitoring in 2023 found that some wells in northern Guam have already exceeded nitrate levels that would trigger a regulatory action, and that certain studies estimate that parts of Guam would begin to exceed a “regulatory trigger point” of 5 milligrams of nitrate per milliliter of drinking water within five years.

A study conducted for the Guam EPA in 1982 found that septic tanks were a major source of pollution, accounting for up to 40% at the time.

“We cannot undo what happened in the past. The question is how we can mitigate it in the future,” said Senator Joanne Brown.

But Dueñas said he received comments from the Guam Environmental Protection Agency, Guam Waterworks Authority and the University of Guam's Water Environmental Research Institute saying the amended version of the bill “adequately addresses our concerns regarding septic tank density in non-sewerage areas within the Groundwater Protection Zone and the Northern Guam Lens Aquifer.”

A request by Senator Telo Taitague to bring in officials from GEPA, GWA and WERI to discuss the Senators’ concerns failed.

Dueñas said the bill was amended to include the Guam EPA's density recommendations.

It recommended that “the minimum lot size for a single dwelling unit above the groundwater protection zone on which a Type 2 or 4 facility is located shall be 19,200 square feet, but the minimum lot size for lots subject to the post-parcel exemption and using a Type 4 nitrogen reduction system shall be 9,600 square feet.”

Opponents and supporters of the bill watched the debate from the lobby of the Congressional building and the balcony of the chamber.

Concerns about overdevelopment and possible contamination of the aquifer that provides more than 80% of Guam's drinking water led to increased restrictions on septic tanks several years ago.

Guam law also requires buildings to be connected to “available sewer lines” within a five-year period.

Senators will continue debate on bill 175-37 on Friday.

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