Failing septic systems an increasing health concern

By Emma Ogutu, Great Lakes Echo

Take action Septics in Kent County here. 

While most home sellers look for Realtors, some may also have to stop at their local health department.

Failing septic systems are common in the state. Picture: Barry-Eaton District Health Department, Michigan

In a growing number of areas, homeowners cannot sell their homes without a clean bill of health for the septic tanks that drain and dispose their human waste.

Failing tanks are becoming common, said Geoff Snyder, the Jackson County drain commissioner in south central Michigan.  And the problem is getting too large to ignore.

Mandatory evaluations in some counties reveal septic systems that are merely tanks connected to a web of pipes leading to road ditches, storm water drainages or rivers, “A flagrant violation of health,” said Eric Pessell, environmental health director for Barry-Eaton counties, southwest Michigan.

Time of Sale or Transfer Program

Now some local authorities are enforcing regulations to ease the situation one property sale at a time:

  • In New York’s Cayuga County, the health department requires that septic tanks be pumped out and inspected at the time of sale.  Transfer of property may not be authorized until necessary repairs are made or guaranteed.
  • Some Minnesota counties, like Blue Earth County, require property sellers to disclose the condition of their septic tanks to sellers, but repairs don’t have to be made before the sale. Serious tank failures have to be fixed within 10 months; non-threatening failures have up to five years for repairs.

Three years ago officials of Barry-Eaton counties implemented ‘the time of sale or transfer’ program which requires a thorough inspection of septic systems before property can be sold.

Only those meeting local health standards can be sold.

“We did this to protect public health and the quality of our environment,” Pessell said.  “We knew we had a huge pollution problem caused by failing septic tanks which were not getting reported for various reasons.”

An authorization to sell property can also be issued if the owner of a failed system can guarantee repairs later.   Failures can also be contested at an administrative hearing.

“There’s a lot of failing septic systems — too many leaking tanks”

Health officials have been more than surprised at what they have discovered since the program begun, he said.  “There’s a lot of failing sewage systems – a lot of leaking septic tanks.”

Plumbing from a system that is backing up waste. Picture: Barry-Eaton District Health Department

But that’s just a fraction of the bigger picture.

The county has stopped and corrected nearly 33 million gallons of untreated discharge flowing into lakes, streams, drains and other surface waters. Officials suspect this is just a third of the problem.

More than 600 of the 2,300 sites that have been inspected failed.

Most common flaws:

  • Septic tanks that fail to treat raw sewage.  Usually corroded or missing outlets, bottomless, cracked or have no lids.
  • Systems that drain into soils which cannot absorb the waste and those connected to pipes that direct the sewage to unapproved sites.
  • Systems not recognized to provide proper treatment and disposal of human waste.
  • Overloaded tanks where raw sewage backs up into the home.
  • Poor maintenance where pipes are broken or the system is filled with roots, soil and scum.
  • Unique conditions where portions of the system have been removed or where a system is located on neighboring property.

What is good for the environment may not be good for business

The regulation has created business for evaluators and increased demand for septic pumpers and related service providers, according to the counties.

But not everyone is happy.

“Whenever you have government regulations that make it difficult to buy homes, homebuyers are inclined to look elsewhere,” said Michael Delaware a local real estate salesman.

The regulation has made it tougher to sell foreclosed homes, he said.

“The banks will not bear the cost for septic repairs which is then passed down to buyers who are now shying off from foreclosed property,” he said.

Pessell said Michigan’s septic tank pollution needs tougher measures because “very many people will only do the right thing if they are made to.”

About half of the evaluated systems in both counties lack county records meaning they were unauthorized and have not been subject to the counties’ inspection requirements.

“People just install a tank and a spider web of pipes leading to road ditches and rivers,” he said.  “They feel safe cause when they flush there’s no backup.”

Pessell said the Barry-Eaton counties’ regulation overrides the existing sanitary code which doesn’t allow county officials access to property.

“Until the regulation was passed, we just didn’t have any way of knowing what systems are out there and how they are functioning,” he said.

How many septic tanks are out there is impossible to estimate. There are no central records and many are not recorded because they were installed without authorization.

Take action Septics in Kent County here. 

© 2011, Great Lakes Echo, Michigan State University Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

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