BOISE - A North Idaho lawmaker’s proposal to eliminate all of the Panhandle Health District’s sewage rules - including those that protect an aquifer that’s the sole source of drinking water for more than 400,000 people in the region, including Spokane - was cut way back Thursday, but still will allow more expansion of homes on outdated sewer systems on North Idaho lakes.
“This was a compromise that we agreed to,” said Dale Peck, environmental response and technology director for Panhandle Health. “It’s certainly a much better alternative than moving HB 667 forward in its original form.”
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who proposed the bill, told a House committee Thursday that he recognized it “would probably have done more damage than it could’ve done good.”
Among the rules his original bill would have eliminated: The requirement that homes built over the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer either be on municipal sewer systems, or have five acres of land to accommodate a septic system.
Mike Kane, lobbyist for Idaho’s seven health districts, said, “We’re turning this into a surgical strike instead of an H-bomb.”
Instead of eliminating all of the district’s sewage and water quality rules, the bill, with negotiated amendments approved by the House Environment Committee on Thursday, would instead eliminate just two specific Panhandle Health rules: One that limits expansion of homes on outdated, non-conforming sewage systems to 10 percent of their current square footage; and another that in some cases requires dual drain fields for community sewer systems. Other changes would conform the district’s appeal processes to those followed by other Idaho health districts.
The 10 percent rule has been controversial; earlier this year, a Moscow, Idaho senator proposed eliminating it on behalf of a Pullman, Wash. resident who replaced her small Lake Coeur d’Alene cabin with a large home, and then couldn’t get an occupancy permit. Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, didn’t proceed with that bill after the district pledged to try to increase flexibility under the rule.
Under Anderson’s amended bill, the rule would be eliminated at the close of this year’s Idaho legislative session, which could be as soon as a week from Friday. The district then would revert to an older state rule, allowing expansions of any size as long as no additional bedrooms are added.
“It will be a change, but it will have us handling things similarly to how they’re done elsewhere in the state,” Peck said. He said the changes in the amended bill should have “a very limited effect on the aquifer.”
Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, has been fighting with the health district for two years over a proposed remodel and expansion of his home on the Spokane River, for which the district denied a permit because of the 10 percent rule. Nonini said that last Friday - after he angrily confronted district officials at a public meeting earlier in the week - he got a letter from the district saying his home actually isn’t subject to that rule, and he can proceed with his expansion project.
Nonini said he’s angry over his experience, and has been told he has a good case to sue. “What about all the other people that aren’t legislators?” he said. He said he and his wife “spent a few thousand dollars on attorneys and engineers to see if we could appease the health district - now it turns out we didn’t have to do that.”
Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, attended that first meeting last week, at which representatives of all seven health districts were present, but wasn’t invited to a second, follow-up meeting. Kelly, an attorney and former division administrator for Idaho DEQ, said, “I could see why they did not want me there, because I understand the issue and I have been a staunch defender of the health districts.”
Kelly said there’s good reason for different septic rules in North Idaho’s lake country than elsewhere in Idaho. “A septic tank that may work in the middle of the desert would be obviously inappropriate in an area where you have a water table that’s much closer to the surface,” she said. “We need to remember that the health districts are providing the most essential service of government, which is protection of public health and safety.”
Terry Harris, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance in Coeur d’Alene, said, “I think procedurally this is no way to legislate complicated problems. … I do think the Panhandle Health sewage rules need an overhaul, but probably not the overhaul that these legislators have in mind. I think they ought to be strengthened and enforced a little better.”
Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, said she opposed Anderson’s original bill, but strongly backs the amended version, which still must pass both houses and receive the governor’s signature to become law. In her Silver Valley district, many people have riverfront homes that aren’t on sewer systems, she said, and have faced difficulty getting permits to build or expand.
Like Nonini, Shepherd said she attended the meeting last week and “I came down hard on Panhandle Health - they know where I stand.” She said, “I think they have been abusive. I think with this series of meetings we’ve had, that they know we mean it.”
State Department of Environmental Quality Director Toni Hardesty is working with all the health districts on an “action plan” for ensuring consistent procedures on sewage regulation around the state. The original bill, she said, would have eliminated the institutional controls program the Panhandle district operates for the Bunker Hill Superfund site; the amended bill wouldn’t.
Anderson, a third-term Republican, said he doesn’t want to endanger water quality; he’s the former longtime chairman of the Outlet Sewer District on Priest Lake. “You know what happens when rules become so restrictive that people start cheating?” he said. “That’s my concern.”