Island County’s Fifteen Septic System Failures

Most Island County residents by now have forgotten the story posted earlier on this blog site,

and how Keith Higman, Island County’s Health Director, defended Angie Homola’s and Helen Price Johnson’s position regarding Island County’s Mandatory Septic System Inspection Program. During the Commissioners’ meeting on July 2, 2012 at 10:24:51 AM, Keith Higman made this remark during his lengthy statement, “We have identified a significant number of properties in the two watersheds that make up the basin that we know to have released or have been releasing fecal coliform through septic systems. If I recall the number, I think is fifteen.”

Keith Higman’s remark prompted an immediate Public Records Disclosure Request to investigate these fifteen properties to determine the actual impact on Holmes Harbor, and verify how accurate Keith Higman’s remark was. Meanwhile, Island County officials quickly contacted the local newspapers to further explain this situation and clear up any discrepancies. Both the Whidbey News Times and South Whidbey Record published a news article that contained these remarks,

“The data being reviewed ranges from collected water quality samples and compiled septic system inspection records to completed capital projects and information-based public information campaigns, according to Keith Higman, director of Island County Public Health.

In general, the data supports good news. While some water quality samples continue to contain unacceptable levels of fecal coliform bacteria, the majority are within allowed state standards, he said.

Also, between 2009 and 2011, a total of 310 on-site septic systems were inspected, resulting in 103 corrections, according to figures provided to the Island County Board of Health earlier this year.

That report listed just two reported failures, though Higman noted that additional failures have occurred. The discrepancy is a matter of how they are accounted for.

The two reported to the board were part of the county’s inspection program. Additional failures have been dealt with through the complaint process. Higman estimated about 15 total failures.”

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For clarification purposes, the “report” that listed just two failures is titled, Holmes Harbor Shellfish Protection District Update, dated March 19, 2012 presented by the Island County Board of Health.

At this point several questions come to mind:

1. Why does Island County need a very expensive septic inspection program when most of the septic issues were discovered through the public complaint process?

2. What do these failures have to do with the primary discrepancy of Helen Price Johnson’s statement:

“There has been some question about whether or not Holmes Harbor really is polluted and I have to tell you that it absolutely is polluted. We’re named the dirtiest beach in Washington State and now there are a number of factors that have to do with that, but primary to it is that there are poor soils throughout the watershed so even functioning septic systems during the kind of rain that we have been having, that stuff washes through your drain field down into Holmes Harbor even at a high functioning level. We can’t have seasonal drain fields to accommodate the kind of growth that we need in Island County around Freeland. We need Freeland to be an urban growth area,” and dye testing results?

The answer is – NOTHING.  Keith Higman did not address HPJ’s statement or the dye testing issue.  Instead he changed the subject.

3. What constitutes a septic system failure?

According to Island County Code 8.07D.030, “Failure” means a condition of an on-site sewage system or component that threatens the public health by inadequately treating sewage or by creating a potential for direct or indirect contact between sewage and the public.

4. What constitutes a septic system?

According to Island County Code: “Septic system” see “on-site sewage system” or “OSS.”
“On-site sewage system” (OSS) means an integrated system of components, located on or nearby the property it serves, that conveys, stores, treats, and/or provides subsurface soil treatment and dispersal of sewage. It consists of a collection system, a treatment component or treatment sequence, and a soil dispersal component. An on-site sewage system also refers to a holding tank sewage system or other system that does not have a soil dispersal component.

5. What are the specific “failures” for each of the fifteen properties in question?

Refer to the cases further in this article.

6. Where are these fifteen failures located?

click on image to enlarge

7. What impact do the fifteen failures have on Holmes Harbor?

8. Were all fifteen properties actually “discovered” through the public complaint process?

This question was posed simply because not all of the cases had an actual “Complaint form” attached to them prompting one to suspect that cases were added simply to fulfill the magic number fifteen.

9. Do the fifteen properties actually meet the “failure” criteria?

Keep in mind that the Island County Health Department determined that these were actual “failures” and publically stated as such. Now the next question: Do you agree with their determination?  YOU be the judge.

This state mandated program is another prime example of legislators creating new regulations based on a failure rate of one percent or less.  This type of over regulation has a direct impact on the rest of the 99% of the citizenry.

Fifteen failures out of 310 inspections represent 4.8% of the Holmes Harbor area, and a whopping .0576% county wide.  Poor documentation is apparent in several of these alleged failures.

Case Number (1)  Complaint form filed Nov 16, 2009 Description: Possible Sewage failure.

Here is what Island County Health Department had to say:

“The complaint was effluent was surfacing periodically, but was quickly soaking back into the ground.  We uncovered the ends of the drainfield lines and found that the infiltrators had filled with sand.  The purpose of the infiltrators in a drainfield is to provide void space for effluent dispersal.  When void space is filled with sand, the drainfield does not function properly and has the potential to flood, as the water has no place to go under a heavy dose.   While this was technically a failure, it was more of a mechanical failure than one that had anything to do with a system that was not treating the effluent properly.”

The fix to this problem was to dig up the infiltrators, and put them back in a layer of gravel to prevent them from sinking into the sand and to put the dose timer at 80%.

Case number (2)  A Complaint Form was not attached to this file however, according to the Permit to Repair a Sewage Disposal System dated January 19, 2007 the problem was that the septic tank was damaged (collapsed) during site clean up after a house fire and the existing system was partially within the well radius.

The fix: A new septic system installed on the property.

Case number (3) Complaint form filed Feb 9, 2011  Description: Sewage surfacing- possible illegal repair. No repair permit.

The fix to this problem:  Get a permit to make the repairs to a drainfield, and hire qualified persons to make those repairs.

Case number (4) Although a Complaint form was not part of this file this parcel appears to be connected to case number 3.  Documents indicate an easement and shared drainfield.

Case number  (5) Complaint filed April 2009 (Actual day not listed) Description: Possible sewage failure. High bachi in ditch (bracketed)  >30,000 during wet season.

What the actual problem was in this case is unclear.  Hand written notes on 4/14/2009 “Phone conv. w/ owner.  Calling Rob XXXXX to assist. Will confirm correction.  No need for permit if DF (drainfield) not compromised. Note to database with same.”

Case number (6)  What is interesting about this case is that the property is listed on the “failure” inventory yet no supporting documentation was provided.  On the other hand, the property directly to the west does have a Complaint form, dated September 13, 2006. Description:  Ponding water – brown- smells of sewage – bottom of field. 

A site visit found this:  Pump failed at alt drainfield.  Switched back.

The fix:  Although documentation at the county is sketchy, replacing the pump would be a practical solution.

Case number (7) Complaint filed on September 4, 2010.  Description: Possible sewage failure. High bachi counts in ditch.  The problem was a break in the main transport line going to the drainfield.  This was an easy fix.

Case number (8) The only documentation provided was a copy of the On-site Sewage Evaluation – Form D which gave the system “Acceptable, no corrections needed.”

Case number (9)  Complaint filed March 24, 2010.  Description: Possible sewage failure.  According to documents “claims sewage is backing up in residence. Ponding around tank, evidence of high water in tank. Drainfield unknown condition.  The problem was a broken pipe going from the septic tank to the drainfield.  Another easy fix.

Case number (10)  No Complaint form was provided. Instead the only documentation provided was an On-site Sewage Evaluation – Form D  dated December 1, 2011 that says “corrections needed” specifically the “high level alarm is not working.”  On the other hand another document known as a Permit to repair a sewage disposal system, dated July 14, 2009 was issued to replace a leaking septic tank.

Case number (11) Again no Complaint form was provided.  However, a Permit to Repair a Sewage Disposal System was given that states “ plugged soil interface. Single compartment tank no filter. Chambers can be used – no reduction.”  Health Department comments: “New septic tank shall have risers, an outlet baffle filter. D-box shall have ground level access. Inspection ports required in both drainfield trenches.”

Case number (12)  Again another case without a Complaint form.  Instead a Permit to Repair a Sewage Disposal System, dated November 22, 2010, was provided that states, “old drainfield 750 gal tank & unknown size drainfield.”  Designer comments: “Pump and abandon old tank per regs.  New tank & pump chamber to pressure bed distribution.”

Case number (13)  Another case without a Complaint form. However, a Permit to Repair a Sewage Disposal System, dated February 10. 2011, states, “Tank deteriorating due to gasses in tank and poor concrete.”  The designer comments: “Replace existing tank with new 1000 gal double comp tank.  Tank will have ground level access & outlet screen.  Old tank to be pumped, crushed, and filled.”  Health Dept. comments: “ Outlet baffle filter required, risers per code. Abandon old tank properly per ICC 8.07D.”

Case number (14) Yet another case without a Complaint form.  Instead an On-site Sewage System Evaluation – Form D, dated March 11, 2011 states “Failure” specifically, “tank filled to overflowing.” “Single tank system and drainfield 35+ years old and installed below basement floor grade – 7 feet below ground level.”

Case Number (15) Complaint form filed Nov 19, 2008 Description: RVs as residence. Possibly no water/septic. In this case the property is a ten acre parcel that is currently a mobile home park.  There are six spots for mobile homes on the property, and each has its own septic system.

According to a follow-up investigation, five RVs were all plumbed into one septic system at one mobile home site but the system was not permitted for additional loads.

The fix:  Get rid of the RVs.  Each septic system on the property was subsequently inspected, and they all passed with flying colors.

Case number (16) No Complaint form presented however, according to the Permit to Repair a Sewage Disposal System, dated August 17, 2007 has a designer comment: “Replace old drainfield to avoid any possible contamination by hazardous materials resulting from previous illicit activities. In Trench Sand filter. See cross-section on page 1/3.”  Health Dept. comments: “Existing tank to be properly decommissioned.”

Case number (17) Complaint form filed May 3, 2010 Description:  Possible sewage failure.  No water or electricity. RV as residence.

A site visit was conducted and found this:  “No obvious sewage discharge.  Hole in ground by RV is suspicious.  No smell.  Lots of trash. Property contaminated. House demo’d.  DF (drainfield) + ??? removed due to (meth) contamination.”

The fix:  Unknown.  This case only has three sheets of paper in the file.  However one could reasonably say that getting rid of the RV, and building a new septic system would be a good fix.

There you have it.  Fifteen, plus two bonus cases.  Yes, periodic septic inspections are a good idea however, Island County officals are having a difficult time justifying their over regulated program.


  1. We, IslandPolitics, have someone’s attention with our voice

    October 17, 6:37 Angie Homola’s successful Navy Pilot husband, Jerry, and source of all the accurate NAS Whidbey scuttlebutt, that Angie quotes as facts to impress voters, phoned me at my home

    We were not at home and Jerry didn’t leave a message

    I didn’t want to talk with him anyway after his verbal attack on me with all the “F” adjectives afterthe Oak Harbor primary League of Women voters forum

    What do you think happened about Oct 17th that rattled Homola’s cage?
    Could it have been associated with the WNT article, “Accusations fly at Freeland voter forum By JUSTIN BURNETT, Times Staff reporter?????
    Maybe it wasn’t the successful Navy pilot calling; could have been some other family member (Angie herself?)
    Only the caller ID feature indicated it was “Jerry Homola”

    Oh well whatever it was that struck their “react” nerve was good
    Keep up
    We need to make sure the Taxing Twins are History with our votes Nov 6th
    We deserve better

  2. I got the same call from Jerry around the same date. It was a robo-call for Angie’s re-election. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I doubt it was a reaction to anything.

    1. Robyn, Thanks for your input
      Sure glad it wasn’t really Angie or that husband of hers that called
      I have no desire to ever have any conversations on any subject with those two

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