Common Regulatory Practices in Onsite Wastewater Programs: A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

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The phrase “a willing suspension of disbelief,” coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria published in 1817, refers to the willingness of a person to accept as true the premises of a work of fiction, even if those premises are fantastic or impossible. Prescriptive codes regulating onsite wastewater often carry forward the relics of previous generations even as new research, new ideas, and new technology provide infinite possibilities to better protect health, environment, and development interests. While gaps remaining in our knowledge are sufficient to warrant a conservative approach, some commonly imposed standards simply cannot be justified in a context of relative risk. The simplest example—common in almost all codes and discussed here—has profound consequences for property owners, goes essentially unaccounted for in any cumulative fashion, and requires a suspension of disbelief to defend.

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