Critics Say Bill Imperils Aquifer Trailer Parks Would Be Exempt From Sewer Law
A bill championed by two Spokane legislators undermines efforts to protect drinking water and should be vetoed by the governor, several city and county officials contend.
The bill, which unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature this month, exempts existing mobile home parks from connecting to public sewers as long as their septic tanks don’t fail. Current law requires that all buildings be connected within a year after public sewers are available.
If Gov. Gary Locke signs the bill into law, mobile homes in parks would be the only homes or businesses exempt from city and county sewer requirements.
The legislation was sponsored by Republican Reps. Duane Sommers and Mark Sterk, along with Rep. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat from the Olympic Peninsula.
It passed unanimously because local governments weren’t aware it was up for a vote, several officials said. Owners and tenants of mobile home parks were the only ones who testified at a hearing this year.
“What bothers me is this was sponsored by two of our own representatives,” said county Commissioner John Roskelley, who first heard about the proposed law on Wednesday. “Both of them know how important the aquifer is to this region.”
Sommers and Sterk said they saw the issue as one of affordable housing.
“We’re not talking about the newer mobile home parks but a lot of the smaller ones,” where rent is cheap and many tenants are on limited incomes, said Sommers.
The law change was requested by Jim Olinger, who owns a mobile home park in the Spokane Valley and another in Hangman Valley. For nine years, Olinger has defied city demands that he hook up to sewers in Hangman Valley.
Olinger said tearing up streets within the Iron Wheel park to lay sewer lines would cost so much that he’d be better off closing the park and selling the land. He soon will face the same issue at the Circle J park in the Valley.
“I couldn’t do it. It’d be devastating,” said Olinger. “It’s like the government demanding that you rebuild your house.”
The city has not yet gone to court to force the Iron Wheel to connect to the sewer, but does send Olinger a sewer bill each month. He now owes $38,500.
Assistant city manager Dave Mandyke said city attorneys haven’t yet determined whether the proposed new law would wipe out Olinger’s bill.
But Sommers and county officials said parks exempt from connecting to the sewer still would have to pay monthly bills. For county customers, that’s more than $30 for each mobile home. If the money weren’t collected, neighboring landowners would have to pay a greater share of the overall cost of putting sewers in the streets.
Olinger said he “over-built” the septic systems in his parks so he’d never have to replace them. He contends they’re working fine and don’t need to be replaced.
But city and county utilities officials say septic tanks - even those that work properly - don’t treat sewage as well as the regional treatment plant. And it’s often tough to tell whether a septic tank is working properly, said David Swink of the Spokane Regional Health District.
Added county utilities director Bruce Rawls: “It doesn’t seem like (the proposed law) is consistent with the regional goals to protect our water quality.”
Spokane County started building sewers to replace septic tanks over the aquifer in 1984. About 12,000 homes outside the city limits are connected to the sewer system, and the county has picked up the pace of construction.
Roskelley said he plans to lobby Locke to veto the bill. Mandyke said the City Council soon will decide whether to join the effort.
If that doesn’t work, Rawls said, he’ll suggest amendments next year that would require mobile home parks to connect to sewers if they’re over an aquifer. That would put Olinger back on the hook.
Sommers says local officials missed their chance.
“We could have amended the bill or they could have convinced a majority not to pass it,” Sommers said. “They apparently chose not to (testify) or they were sleeping, I don’t know which.”
Ed Thorpe, director of the Coalition for Clean Water, said he knew about the bill last year.
“We weren’t really aware that the Legislature was going to revisit it,” Thorpe said.