STRs on septic systems pose health hazard | Opinion

Lincoln County began licensing short term rentals (STRs) under a corporate regulation ordinance in 2016. Until March 2019, when a civic group met with each of the county commissioners and the county council, the county was unaware of the fact that it had approved hundreds of high-occupancy STRs that relied on sewer systems for sanitation. The citizen group presented evidence of a failed STR sewer system that dumped raw sewage directly into the ground, creating a public health hazard for a neighbor. In September 2019, the regulation was amended to add minimum requirements for wastewater treatment plants.

Recently, the county’s sanitation department provided the Board of Commissioners with information on the characteristics of the septic tanks and how they work, as well as the impact of the temporary use of feasts / famines by large numbers of tenants at STRs. The whole point is that septic tanks are designed to be used fairly consistently and work best. The systems use bacteria to break down much of the waste, and indigestible solids sink to the bottom of the septic tank while remaining processed fluids gradually flow into the drainage field to create another aerobic bacterial action in the soil that destroys any remaining pathogens.

A septic tank is designed to hold excess input but has limited capacity. If too much flow enters and exceeds tank capacity, it can push solid wastewater into the drainage field before it is digested and overwhelm the ability of soil bacteria to keep up. It can also lead to clogging and backups in a home. If a system designed for four to six people, for example, is used by eight to eleven people for a few days or more, it can become overwhelmed and fail for some time each week.

Septic tank repairs are expensive to repair and contaminate soil and water with pathogens that can cause problems for neighboring owners. As the plumbing said, large numbers of STR tenants are causing spikes in septic tank usage that can quickly overwhelm system capacity and pose a public health hazard.

Recently a new and serious question has arisen. It appears that Lincoln County inadvertently violated the Oregon Health Authority’s rules by licensing, or even tolerating, STRs for septic tanks. A rule from the Department of Public Health clearly states: “Sewage and sewage must be disposed of in a public sewer system in a manner approved by the Ministry of Environmental Quality.” This is not done by STRs in septic systems.

For a more complete reference, see Chapter 333 of the Department of Public Health, Department 29, Rules for the Accommodation of Travelers at:

Relevant excerpts, emphasis added:

• 333-029-0015 Definitions: (10) “Traveler Accommodation” includes any establishment that is not a hostel and whose rooms, apartments or sleeping accommodations are rented or offered for rent to travelers or transients daily or weekly for a fee or fee paid or for to pay for the rental or use of facilities.

• 333-029-0080 Sanitation: (1) Accommodation and hostels for travelers must have an adequate and safe sanitation system. (2) Sewage and sewage must be discharged into a public sewage system in a manner approved by the Ministry of Environmental Quality.

• 333-029-0120 deviation: (1) The department can grant a deviation from the requirements of OAR 333-029-0005 to 333-029-0110 … as follows … (2) Such a deviation authority is not granted regardless of a district delegated or contractual powers to administer and enforce the statutes and rules for the accommodation of travelers.

If Lincoln County breaks this state-mandated rule, it should revoke the licenses of STRs that operate with sewage treatment plants and not issue new licenses.

Jim Peterson lives in Depoe Bay.

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