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Septic service businesses say exam threatens their business

By Joe Beck

Rick Saffell has been operating First Choice Septic Service in Lebanon Church since 1994, but he's afraid his days in the business are numbered under new licensing requirements from the state.

The General Assembly is scheduled to consider the new licensing requirements in a bill up for consideration Thursday. The bill would allow Saffell and others in his predicament another six months to take a licensing exam needed for them to remain in business.

Saffell said he thinks the bill, as currently written, won't do him much good. He says the test is simply too tough for people like him who lack a degree in engineering or related field, no matter how much additional time they have to prepare.

"If they shut us down, what in the world are these people going to do?" Saffell said.

Saffell operates under a four-year interim license that is supposed to be replaced by a permanent license after he passes the exam. A regulatory board operating under the state's Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation issued the interim licensing in recognition that septic service operators needed time to prepare for the exam.

But time is now running out for many of those with interim licenses, including Saffell. Saffell says he has already proved his mettle in his day-to-day work without an extensive formal education.

"They want to give us a college-oriented test to pump tanks and do maintenance," Saffell said. "That's the way the world is now. It's like asking a nurse to take a bar exam. It's not even pertinent to what I do."

The root of Saffell's problem lies in the growth of alternative onsite sewage systems that use a technology that is more complicated than those found in what state regulators call conventional onsite systems -- the kind that rely on septic tanks that are periodically pumped out and their contents hauled away.

The alternative systems are typically used in soils that are deemed too permeable for a conventional septic system. Unlike conventional septic systems, the alternative systems allow for treated wastewater to be dumped directly into groundwater. Such systems must be designed by qualified engineers and installed properly to avoid contaminating groundwater and creating a public health threat.

The General Assembly passed a bill in 2007 that required the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation to create a licensing program for those who install and maintain septic tanks and alternative systems.

The legislation at first encompassed conventional and alternative septic systems, but was amended in 2012 after protests from conventional septic service businesses. The amended bill lifted the requirement that those installing conventional septic systems pass an exam to remain licensed. The exam requirement for installers of alternative systems remained in tact.

Saffell and others lobbied the General Assembly recently to end the exam requirement, but they failed to sway members of a key committee in the House of Delegates. As a result, the bill now under consideration in the General Assembly provides only for a six-month interim license extension and only for those who simultaneously apply to take the exam.

Saffell said those who have taken the test so far have found it a daunting task.

"Everybody I have talked to, except for one company, has not passed the test," he said.

Data obtained from the state show a passing rate of 58 percent for all those taking the exam for alternative system operators and installers -- 70 percent for installer candidates and 44 percent for operators.

Mary Broz Vaughan, communications director with the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, said the controversy swirling around the exam requirement could still produce some last minute changes during the General Assembly debate.

"This legislation has had a strong life," Broz Vaughan said. "I know emails are flying fast and furious on this. I would not be surprised if somebody sent an email that would tick somebody off and something happens to this bill on the floor.

"There are a lot of strong feelings."

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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