SALISBURY – A discussion on septic issues and operations at the health department’s environmental health division highlighted a recent meeting in Wicomico County.
Last week, members of the Wicomico County Council met with Health Officer Lori Brewster and Acting Environmental Health Director Dan Williams to discuss permitting delays relating to septic systems.
“I looked at the numbers this morning and we’re averaging about four to five weeks before we can actually touch the permit to begin the process,” Williams said. “Depending on the type of permit we’re dealing with, it takes time.”
In recent months, Wicomico’s septic issues have taken center stage as county leaders have met with real estate agents, developers and officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to discuss failing septic systems.
In addition to state regulations and soil standards making it difficult and costly to install and replace septic systems, officials noted staffing shortages at the health department have led to months-long delays.
“In 2020, we issued 371 permits. We received 419,” Williams said. “In 2021, from January to current, we’ve received 290 applications and we’ve issued 151. So we are trying to put the word out the best we can. We’re severely limited by staffing. We also had a tremendous setback throughout the pandemic and all the things that went with it.”
Williams noted his department is currently operating with one supervisor, two health specialists and one trainee. He said his department was actively recruiting, but noted the lengthy process for finding qualified workers.
“We are considerable low in our salaries in environmental health, which makes it extremely difficult to attract individuals to come to work in the department …,” Brewster noted, adding the health department was seeking the council’s support for a salary review. “You can go into the private sector and make a whole lot more money doing the same type of work.”
Council members said they had been approached by several developers who refuse to build in Wicomico County because of its lengthy and challenging permitting process. They questioned why it was so difficult to build and replace septic systems.
“We’ve had contractors in here who say they can go to neighboring counties and get them approved in no time,” Councilman Ernie Davis said.
Officials noted Wicomico County received more scrutiny from MDE based on the results of a 2018 audit. As a result, Williams said his department spent more time reviewing applications.
“We go over every permit application with a fine-tooth comb. We make sure the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed …,” he said. “In other words, we go by the book.”
Adding to the department’s challenges, officials say, are delays for system approvals. Williams noted that innovative and advanced septic systems that don’t fit within the constraints of the state’s regulations must receive approval from MDE.
“We will make decisions unless regulations prevent us from doing things,” he said.
Councilman Bill McCain argued that flexibility was needed when it comes to replacing failing septic systems. He noted that the suggested mound systems were large and often unattractive.
“I know we often get septic providers where they can get a system that works fine, but the parameters we have to do it in don’t work …,” he said. “If we just had more flexibility, more alternatives.”
Councilman Josh Hastings said the county needed to advocate not only for additional staffing, but for better septic systems.
“This is something that needs to be a team effort …,” he said. “We all have to advocate for changing to a better system, otherwise we’ll be dealing with these same issues 30, 50, 100 years from now.”
After further discussion, the council agreed to hold regular work sessions with the health department.