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Out of options, Gorst must fix its septic systems

Gorst needs a permanent way to dispose of its residents’ sewage, but when it comes to figuring out and implementing the best solution, it appears Kitsap County is on its own.

The Kitsap County Health District was recently informed the county had failed to obtain a federal grant that would have helped pay for a community drain field — a sewage solution that, while cheaper than a full-scale sewer system, would offer a safer means of disposing of the area’s waste. As a result, it appears the health district will have to move to plan C — forcing Gorst residents to fix their already patched and failing septic systems.

That, said health district official Stuart Whitford, is nobody’s favorite choice, but at this point the district has no choice.

“We can’t wait any longer to take action,” Whitford said. “We have to act now.”

Whitford, who serves as water quality program manager for the district, said the situation in Gorst has passed the emergency point. As early as 1995, the health district noted nearly 15 percent of Gorst’s 341 on-site sewage systems were failing or had failed. In addition, approximately 40 percent of commercial businesses’ sewage systems there showed signs of failure.

In 1997, the state Department of Health declared Gorst a “severe public health hazard” in response to the sewage findings.

Currently, there are approximately 35 residences with failing systems and uncounted more with systems approaching the point of collapse.

This would normally be a localized health hazard, were it not for Sinclair Inlet. In fact, most of the failing systems are located near the waterway, which meant in many cases untreated sewage was running directly into the Gorst estuary — a fish-bearing, and therefore highly fragile, ecosystem.

This is not a coincidence, Whitford said. The high water table near the shoreline quickly overwhelms standard septic systems, resulting in failure. In addition, the soil in that area is mostly fill, which also makes it more difficult for septic drain fields to work properly.

“it’s a recipe for bad performance,” Whitford said.

To make matters worse, Whitford said the state is about to come out with new standards for bacterial contamination in Sinclair Inlet. The standards haven’t yet been established, but Whitford believes it’s unlikely the Gorst end of the inlet would ever pass muster.

The new plan calls for a series of deadlines by which residents must perform needed maintenance and/or repairs on their existing systems.

They include:

• Oct. 1, 2003 — residents whose systems are still working must have a contract for regular operations and maintenance signed with a qualified provider

• May 31, 2004 — residents with failing systems must submit a repair plan that outlines how their systems will be brought up to code

• Oct. 1, 2004 — all repair work must be completed by now

Individual costs will depend on the septic system and what work needs to be done on it.

Whitford said the sewer issue is certainly not dead, but its prospects are looking dimmer and dimmer. In order to be of any use, the county will need to a have a firm plan and financing in place by October, 2004.

Meanwhile, the estimated price of a new sewer system is $2 million and, so far as Whitford knows, there are no pending grants that would help defray those costs.

Nevertheless, he still believes a permanent solution is worth pursuing — for everyone’s sake.

“Now we have a lot of temporary or Band-Aid repairs out there that were never supposed to last this long,” Whitford said. “If we did have (a sewer plan) in place, we might be able to stretch out repairs a little longer,” which would reduce the time crunch on Gorst’s residents.

The other option, which may come out at the public hearing on the matter the health district is holding tomorrow, is a cluster of mini-community drain fields. Whitford said, apart from notifying residents of the new deadlines and giving them the chance to ask questions, the meeting is a way to bring neighbors together and encourage them to come up with their own community solutions.

Theoretically, a group of residents could acquire and empty lot and combine their resources to install a drain field to serve all of them. Such a field would be more stable than a lot of individual systems and could be deliberately placed on high, well-drained ground to limit the likelihood of failure.

Such a solution could work, Whitford said, but it would be up to residents to choose that option for themselves.

“We want people to start talking to each other about those types of things,” he said.

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