Kent County does not have adequate laws governing the upkeep of residential septic systems. On-site, wastewater storage systems leak and perform poorly enough to pose health risks. As such, local sanitation departments across the state usually take the lead in regulating the systems, but this ad hoc regulatory patchwork does not adequately protect our water and environment. Michigan is the only state in the US that does not have a statewide law regulating septics.
In Kent County, there are 44,252 on-site wastewater systems that leak 365 million gallons of wastewater annually, or, one million gallons a day. This wastewater makes its way into our groundwater and can contain pathogens and microorganisms such as E coli, Giardia, Cryptosporidium and Hepatitis A.
Nitrate also leeches into groundwater, which when ingested reduces the efficiency with which blood delivers oxygen. This can cause brain damage or death, with younger children being more susceptible.
One way this issue can be addressed is through regular septic system maintenance and inspection. Ottawa County has one such check up program, a “Point of Sale” (PoS) inspection that occurs when the property including the on-site wastewater system is sold to a new owner. In 2010, out of the 755 septic systems evaluated in Ottawa 61 were in failing condition. This is in contrast to Barry-Eaton, where in the same year 766 systems were evaluated and 201 failed. According to the EPA, this discrepancy is a result of how long the counties’ respective programs have been in place. Areas with ongoing inspection programs have fewer system failures, and Ottawa’s program has existed for 27 years as opposed to Barry-Eaton’s 3-year program.
While reducing failures in evaluated systems over time, PoS programs have a key flaw: only systems on property’s sold are inspected, which means only a certain percentage of landowners are held accountable for the maintenance of those systems, and only during the sale transaction period. This flaw would allow for failing and faulty septic systems to leak over an extended period of time without receiving repair – without a more systematic approach, and considerable homeowner education this approach is left wanting. Furthermore, it has been argued that tying septic inspections to a sale would slow transactions for realtor’s and create inefficiencies in the housing market. Of course, the buyer would be given greater information about their purchase and it would somewhat mitigate the risk of seller and agent.
A more systematic approach would include regular inspections at a reasonable interval, and would include resources, education, and a variety of options for those failing septic inspections. In these times of austerity this might seem to be a reach for local and state governments, but it’s impossible to see this issue as anything but one of the most import. Simply, it is an absolute and basic infrastructure necessity.
A million gallons a day is an embarrassment and a health hazard. We need to urge the Kent County Commission to enact a county wide septic ordinance that will establish routine inspections, resources for homeowners that fail inspections, and basic septic maintenance education.
Contact the Commissioners on the Kent County Septic Subcommittee and let them know that you support protecting our water from septic pollution.
1. Tom Antor, District 2
Phone: (616) 887-2614
2. Bill Hirsch, District 10
Phone: (616) 554-5458
3. Jim Saalfeld, District 11
Phone: (616) 464-1939
4. Candace E. Chivis, District 17
Phone: (616) 248-7896