AMBOY — The scene at a rural Amboy property last week looked like it could have been an archaeological excavation.
A patch of land to the side of a large garage was carefully unearthed, with tangled roots and worms exposed. But three employees of Bloomquist Septic Inspections certainly weren’t looking for any treasures.
They were digging to install a receptacle and drainage system for human waste — a septic system, which accounts for the most common wastewater treatment system used in rural and unsewered areas of the county. According to a 2017 Columbian story, there are around 33,500 septic systems in Clark County. By law, and common sense, they require routine maintenance, and indeed, it’s not exactly pretty.
“What’s your definition of gross? Getting in your mouth, getting in your eyes? It’s all been there,” longtime septic worker Pete Roberts said with a laugh.
The Ohio native has heard the whispers from others about his dirty job.
“I was doing a septic tank inspection; there was this little boy, he was probably 5 or 6 years old. His mom says, ‘That’s why you want to go to school, to college, so you don’t have to do that,’ ” Roberts, 56, whispered, mimicking the parent.
But the University of Utah graduate and Air Force veteran doesn’t mind.
“I chuckle, because you know, it might be kind of a lowly job, but when you find jobs people don’t like, they happen to pay a little bit better,” Roberts said. His business, which he has owned since 1997 after purchasing it from someone else, has downsized over the years, but he said its revenue can reach $800,000 a year doing work on land and for floating homes.
And while the job may have a reputation of being dirty and “lowly,” it’s an important one. Problematic septic and sewage systems can pollute ground and surface water.
“There have been a lot of problems. Burnt Bridge Creek was polluted, and they’ve done a lot with the septic systems to clean that up. Up in Puget Sound, they had systems fail and E. coli (got) in the water. But as technology and better systems go in, it really changes things,” Roberts said.
Although Roberts laughed when describing how dirty the job can get, he noted that there are serious health risks if the work is not performed safely. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, improperly treated sewage poses risks ranging from eye and ear infections to gastrointestinal illness and hepatitis.
The Washington On-Site Sewage Association helps keep certified installers like Roberts up to speed on industry trends and legislation.
“The industry says don’t be using the homeowner’s hose because next thing the homeowner’s 5-year-old is using the hose and getting a drink of water out of it. You’ve really got to think, ‘What am I doing here and how does it affect somebody if I’m not careful?’ ” he said.
Back in Amboy, Roberts and his crew were working to replace a septic system that was undocumented. He looked at the new system going into the ground alongside the remnants of the old.
“This is brand new; it showed up on the truck at about 8:30 a.m. Part of the old tank is sitting there. That black, jagged plastic — this is just a do-it-yourself person that showed up and got some water tank, dug a hole, threw it in then ran a drain line beside the building all the way down,” Roberts said, as water hissed through pipes snaking across the ground. “The person who owns (the house) now is a flipper. So he bought it, now he’s trying to sell it. So he needs to make sure it’s up to code.”
Septic systems are tracked by Clark County Public Health, which sends an inspector to approve new systems.
The new installation cost the homeowner $9,000 to $10,000. Replacing and repairing septic systems isn’t cheap, which is why routine inspections are so vital. The type of system needed can also depend on the landscape, Roberts said.
“So if you have really good working soils, you get a standard gravity septic system like this,” he said, adding that they only need to be inspected every three years, as required by county code. “If it’s not very good, like you have a lot of clay in the soils, then you’re going to get an advanced technical system, which is like $20,000 to $30,000.”
Financial assistance is available for homeowners who may have a failing septic system through a housing rehabilitation loan program.
“If people don’t have them inspected like they’re supposed to be we’ll come and it’ll be backed up and they won’t have any idea. ‘Why is the toilet flushing slow?’ Then they call the pumper and all they had to do was pull the filter up, clean it off, and stick it back in. So I find just typically most people don’t know; out of sight out of mind,” Roberts said. “Most people flush the toilet and it’s gone. But, when you have a septic system, that’s not good.”
Employee Jason Scouller, 38, of Vancouver, went through the trench they had dug with a pair of cutters, nipping stray roots to make way for a plastic item called a gravelless chamber, which provides a void for passage of effluent, or liquid waste.
He started in the septic business with his brother, as a pumper. The installation and inspection side of things offers him a new perspective, he said.
“It definitely wasn’t — when they ask you ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ at school, I wouldn’t have said this,” Scouller said. “It’s job security. It’s never going to quit, probably.”
Roberts similarly ended up in the business by chance. Following time in the military, a construction job with his brother-in-law, and a 10-year term as the public works director for the town of Yacolt, he chose to focus on the septic business full time.
“If you don’t have a really good stomach, it’s not the profession for you. But I grew up on a chicken farm. I was born to do this,” he said.
Bloomquist Septic Inspections
P.O. Box 263, Yacolt
Revenue: According to business owner Pete Roberts, the business grosses $750,000 to $800,000 a year, but much of that goes to buying materials for jobs.
Number of employees: Five
Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: The bureau doesn’t keep a detailed view of the septic tank servicing occupation in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, but a snapshot shows that it has an expected growth rate of 17 percent through 2026. In May 2018, the annual mean wage for septic tank servicers and sewer pipe cleaners in the Hillsboro-Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area was $23.89 an hour, or $49,700 annually.
WORKING IN CLARK COUNTY
Working in Clark County, a brief profile of interesting Clark County business owners or a worker in the public, private, or nonprofit sector. Send ideas to Lyndsey Hewitt:
firstname.lastname@example.org; fax 360-735-4598; phone 360-735-4550.