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Chair Nathan Miller Voices Frustrations for Septic Permit Turnaround by Appalachian District Health Department

By Jesse Wood

Feb. 5, 2014. Chair Nathan Miller once again voiced his frustration about the turnaround time for septic and well permits to Beth Lovette, director of Appalachian District Health Department, at a Watauga County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday.

Lovette was before the board to present ADHD’s annual report, but Miller was more eager to discuss undisclosed complaints he has received from contractors. 

adhdLovette, who took over in July 2011, inherited this ongoing issue, and months after she began, the commissioners let her know that they weren’t pleased with the permit process in November 2011, which at the time averaged about three weeks in length to receive a septic permit.

Since Lovette became director, the number of complaints decreased dramatically and the average permit turnaround has declined as well, but Chair Nathan Miller was so unpleased that on Tuesday he threatened county funds to the health department.

“It’s gotten better, but it’s not fixed,” Miller said. “If you can’t get it fixed – it’s been a problem since I became commissioner – than the only way I know to do it is take money away.”

He noted that 10.8 days that it takes from initial inquiry by someone who wants a septic permit to receive the first site visit is “unacceptable … when we are funding one or maybe two extra soil people.”

Along with the first site visit average of 10.8 days, it takes roughly 17 days before a septic permit is issued, according to figures included in the annual report. Those figures don’t take into account permits that are more than 90 days old. 

Speaking in 2011 about this same issue, Andrew Blethen, environmental health supervisor for ADHD, said many factors are involved in a site evaluation that limit a speedy process, such as limitations with soil depth and rocky terrain, limited space for septic systems, inclement weather, lack of site preparedness and other public health responsibilities not related to septic systems and wells.

He also noted that the sheer volume of applications can lengthen the turnaround time, and that in 2006, the N.C. General Assembly put permits, inspections and oversight of all private drinking well systems “squarely” on the shoulders of local health departments.

“We were only issuing septic permits until 2006,” he said. “With the change in legislature for all private drinking well systems, in some months [that] doubles the amount of applications that come in the door.”

On Tuesday, Miller said that contractors “fear retribution” from the environmental health staff at ADHD if they speak negatively about the health department and its permit process. 

Lovette mentioned that her “phone doesn’t ring off the hook anymore” with complaints with the permit process as it did when she took over the helm in 2011.

“We are committed to providing high-quality service to protect your drinking water and to provide the highest-customer service,” Lovette said.

She asked Miller what exactly were the specific complaints because she was unaware of this complete dissatisfaction.

“It’s hard to know how to fix things without knowing what’s wrong,” Lovette said. “There will not be any repercussions or retribution. There will not be. If we really want to fix things, we have to identify the problem and fix things.”

Miller mentioned that he couldn’t divulge details without giving away specific jobs that would then be able to be linked to contractors. Lovette suggested having the County Manager Deron Geouque forward complaints to her office, so she is aware of existing problems. 

At the end of Lovette’s presentation, Commissioner David Blust said, “It’s much better than years ago.”