Permit Process: Regulator Explains Onsite Rule-Making

A broad spectrum of industry professionals drives the Tennessee Onsite Wastewater Association to advocate for higher-functioning decentralized systems.
Permit Process: Regulator Explains Onsite Rule-Making
Reach Bob O’Dette at 615/253-5319.

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The Tennessee Onsite Wastewater Association (TOWA) has a diverse membership that President Bob O’Dette says helps build broad consensus on ways to protect the environment. TOWA’s membership consists of installers and pumpers, manufacturers, field practitioners, suppliers, engineers, soil scientists, distributors, research professionals, educators, consultants and regulators. (Learn more about TOWA at

O’Dette assumed his TOWA role at the group’s annual convention in February. As a regulator of the onsite industry for the Tennessee Division of Water Resources, O’Dette is the state’s biosolids coordinator and is involved in the approval of operating permits for large decentralized onsite systems that are common in Tennessee.

Does your job as a regulator get in the way of being the leader of an industry association?

O’Dette: TOWA responds to proposed rules and design criteria by providing comments. We have a relatively large board of directors with 16 members and several of them are regulators. We have a specific position for a regulator along with positions to represent engineers, service providers, academia, soil scientists, installers, manufacturers and training, along with some at-large positions.

I’m very pleased with the way the Division of Water Resources has been open to getting as much input as they can. We’re going to have better rules by getting consensus among a large number of people with a lot of experience. It’s a two-way street, and they are very open and transparent with everything they do.

Describe how that works in practice.

O’Dette: We passed state rules for the land application of biosolids in 2013 for the first time. We used to be covered under the federal [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] rule, and still are, but we didn’t have state rules. EPA regulations have a specific agronomic rate for septage, for instance, but didn’t have one for biosolids.

We’ve had some issues and wanted to be able to handle it better. It also made sense to have something more customized because we have a lot of differences from the Mississippi River in west Tennessee to the Smokey Mountains of east Tennessee.

Before we put the rules out for public notice and a formal comment period, we had about 15 or 20 meetings across the state and went through probably 30 revisions to the draft rules. Once we put out the public notice, we had very few comments. If we hadn’t opened it up and taken the effort to get consensus prior to going into the official rulemaking process, I think it would have been a lot more difficult.

We got the feedback from diverse groups and met with different organizations to give them a chance for input. As regulators, our approach is that you don’t keep those things hidden until it’s suddenly in a public notice, and people are saying ‘What’s this?’ and don’t really have an adequate time to respond. We want a good rule at the end. It may be contrary to what some people may want, but they can understand it because it’s been thoroughly aired out.

Part of your regular job is part of the permit process for decentralized cluster onsite systems. Are they popular in Tennessee?

O’Dette: The state has issued more than 400 permits for cluster systems. About 30 or 40 of those are surface spray, the rest are subsurface drip. The typical cluster system in Tennessee serves 150 to 200 homes. We have a couple that have more than 500 homes. We permit some systems that have more than 100 acres of land that is either sprayed or dripped to handle their wastewater.

What is on your radar screen for the onsite industry in Tennessee?

O’Dette: Before the recession, we were in a time of heavy growth and cluster systems were booming. Five or six years ago, we were getting 80 to 100 new applications a year, and then it dropped to almost nothing. I don’t think we had two or three new applications last year.

That’s not good for the economy, but it allowed us to take a timeout and look at what we had been approving. We needed to rethink some of the criteria that we were allowing, and a number of issues have come up that show that we have to change our thinking a little bit.

One example is that we were allowing 5-foot spacing on driplines and it just wasn’t giving us good coverage. We’ve gone to 2-foot spacing. We know that’s more expensive for construction, but it’s needed to get good utilization of the soil. I have pictures that show zebra-striping, so it’s obvious the nutrients weren’t going to the full footprint of the soil area.

We’ve had just a few cases and only one that balked at the 2-foot spacing. So that’s something we’re looking at. We’ll have a draft and open it up to comments and suggestions. Maybe we can change the criteria, or maybe we’ll have to go through formal rulemaking.

What’s the difference between criteria and formal rulemaking?

O’Dette: With criteria, you can make variances and changes without going through the formal rulemaking process. But then you get into the problem of where you draw the line and is it fair to everyone? I think once we see the comments on the dripline spacing and see some more situations, we’ll be better able to determine how much of a change we should make.

What about TOWA stands out in your mind?

O’Dette: I’ve been a member for seven years. I think it’s the quality of the people in TOWA and their dedication to doing good work and protecting the environment. There are a lot of challenges out there. I’m very proud to be part of it.

I’ve been in a lot of organizations. The idea of consensus is so powerful because it’s sometimes so difficult to achieve. If you go in and just vote on something, and the people who vote against it don’t get their way, there is a tendency to work against it and it will be more difficult and convoluted to get together. With consensus, you and I may not agree that it’s exactly what we want, but we can live with it, work with it and support it. And when you get that among a diverse group, you’ve got something that is very powerful.


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