As Michigan lawmakers ponder septic repair funds, Ohio offers a model

Rebecca Fugitt of the Ohio Department of Health said funding the state’s water pollution control loan fund to water treatment owners was “a key component” that helped buy a new code.

As of 2011, the Ohio EPA has used this and other funds to award $ 82.6 million to help people repair and replace domestic sewer systems. Homeowners must be on a low or middle income to gain access to funds through their local health department, which will cover all or part of the project costs depending on the applicant’s income.

Patrick McGarry, Athens District Director of Environmental Health, said the state funding will help local governments in the region with high levels of poverty address looming public health threats without creating financial crises for individual homeowners.

Common in rural areas without municipal water treatment systems, septic tanks are private systems that typically collect wastewater in an underground tank, where solids settle to the ground and liquids are slowly dispersed in the ground. They can last anywhere from 15 to 40 years with proper maintenance, including the regular hiring of someone to inspect the tank and pump waste out of it.

But many Michigan septic tanks have passed their lifespan without being replaced, causing them to pollute nearby waterways.

Failing septic tanks can dump raw sewage into the environment, where it can make people sick by spreading bacteria like E. coli, viruses, and algae-eating nutrients. Even working septic tanks can sometimes be harmful to the environment and human health if they are too tightly packed in a certain area, experts have found.

But with no support for low-income septic tank owners, McGarry said, “When you have homes and land that are worth less than the sewer system is going to cost, it just doesn’t happen.”

Ultimately, the Ohio Funding Program will save public dollars. By paying the septic tank replacement bill, he said, taxpayers save costs related to water pollution, from health bills to cleanup and lost recreational opportunities when waterways become so polluted that they are not swimmable or fishable.

It’s too early to say if the program will have any measurable impact on water quality across the state, said Fugitt of the Ohio Department of Health. The department will launch a process this year to interview local health officials to find out if septic failure rates have declined since the new regulations came into effect.

The goal, according to Fugitt, is to bring this as close as possible to zero percent.

At the local level, McGarry said, it is clear that the program is working. Raccoon Creek, near Sementilli’s home, was once ravaged by pollution from septic tanks and mining. Now, he said, the water quality is some of the best in the state.

In Michigan, spotty supervision, polluted lakes

Michigan’s efforts to better manage septic pollution followed a similar pattern.

Lawmakers have repeatedly sought statewide standards for the design, construction, and maintenance of sewage treatment plants in Michigan, only to resolve efforts amid complaints that new regulations would place heavy repair bills on the poorest homeowners, local health officials overwhelming, making it harder to sell homes and break into private property.

But as a result of the failure to repair failing septic tanks, pollution is getting worse in Michigan’s waterways, said Joan Rose, a Michigan State University microbiologist who researched the problem.

Rose led a team of Michigan State University researchers that tested 64 Michigan waterways and discovered that those with the closest septic tanks had the highest levels of human feces.

Michigan has about 1.4 million wastewater treatment plants, and Molly Rippke, a water biology specialist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, estimates up to 20 percent of that could fail.

About half of Michigan’s rivers are home to too much E. coli to safely swim in, Rippke said. This pollution comes from a variety of sources, including septic tanks.

“But of course all rivers lead to lakes and also to the Great Lakes, where our favorite beaches are,” said Rippke.

And harmful algal blooms that thrive in bodies of water filled with nutrient loads from sewage treatment plants, lawn manure, and farm runoff are also a growing problem across the state.

Michigan’s new spending proposals from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, both building on an earlier proposal from Governor Gretchen Whitmer, call for tens of millions of dollars to be spent repairing septic tanks.

They’re among several priorities for how Michigan should spend billions in federal stimulus funds that weren’t allocated when lawmakers passed a state budget last month. The Republican proposal would allocate $ 35 million to failing septics, while the Democratic proposal would allocate $ 100 million to the issue.

Any of these sums would seriously affect Michigan’s septic pollution problem. But if the funds don’t keep going year after year and come with regulatory changes, they are unlikely to solve the problem.

The 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, a group appointed by the government at the time. Rick Snyder concluded that Michigan needs both regulatory changes that require homeowners to repair their septic tanks and about $ 20 million annually to help people with “demonstrable financial needs” get their jobs done.

Septic tank owners who can afford to repair their system themselves should be expected to do so, commissioners said.

In the absence of national standards, it is largely up to the local communities to decide when and whether they regulate septic tanks. Often times, local officials don’t even keep track of where all of the septics are, let alone which ones are failing.

“The local codes vary a lot, and that can be a problem,” said Rippke.

Funding to repair septic tanks could be key to making future talks about septic tank regulation in Michigan more palatable, said Dendra Best, executive director of the nonprofit Wastewater Education.

“You have to have one before you can do the other,” said Best.

Health authorities across the state must approve and inspect newly built wastewater treatment plants. But once that is done, there is often little to no further steps to ensure that the system continues to function properly over the decades that follow.

Health departments in 10 counties across the state go further and require a septic inspection before a property is sold. What they found is cause for concern: In Ingham County, 13 percent of septic tanks were not working properly. In Macomb it was 15 percent. In Barry and Eaton Counties, which have since been suspended, 27 percent.

But in the rest of the state, where such regular inspections don’t take place, health officials have little idea how many polluting septic tanks there are.

As a result, some local communities are grappling with deteriorating water quality issues due to outages or simply too many septic tanks in a confined space, sometimes leading to disputes over how to fix them.

Townships around Higgins Lake, for example, are trying again to move homes around septic tanks and to a public sewer system after previous attempts failed in part due to concerns about the high upfront costs of installing sewers.

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