Self-Inspection of Rural Septic Systems in Whatcom County Likely to End in Wake of Hirst Ruling

On January 24, the Whatcom County Council introduced an ordinance for consideration that would end self-inspection of rural septic systems, instead, requiring periodic inspections by a licensed professional. Under current policy, homeowners can become certified to complete their own evaluations in some circumstances.

The ordinance was proposed by the Whatcom County Health Department in response to the State Supreme Court’s decision last year in Whatcom County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, commonly known as the Hirst decision. The Hirst ruling has received attention locally based on its impact on permit-exempt wells, discussed in our earlier blog post, but the decision also held that the County’s rural element policy failed to protect water quality as required by the State’s Growth Management Act.

In the decision, the Court upheld the Growth Management Hearings Board’s earlier ruling that the County’s policy of allowing homeowners to inspect their own septic systems failed to protect water quality. In its analysis, the Court noted studies linking faulty septic systems to water contamination, and the disparity in reported failure rates between homeowners who self-inspect versus professionals.

Given the Court’s ruling, it would be difficult for the County to continue allowing self-inspections, and we can expect that the ordinance will be adopted in some form in the coming months.