Groups urge action on health risks from exposed septic

An exposed septic tank at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in Rodanthe. Photo: National Park Service

Two environmental nonprofits are pressuring state and federal agencies to address the risks posed by leaking sewage systems from Outer Banks oceanfront homes that have collapsed or are at risk of falling into the sea.

On behalf of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review, the Southern Environmental Law Center on Thursday sent letters to the National Park Service at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, urging them to deal with looming threats Addressing threats to public health, welfare and safety posed by collapsing homes and abandoned septic tanks in the village of Rodanthe, Dare County.

In a press release, the organizations noted that the eroding shoreline and rising sea levels have left houses that once stood inland at risk on the wet sandy beach, and that since 2020 five houses along the Rodanthe coast have collapsed and ” have polluted the surf and breakers of North Carolina.” Shoreline with hazardous debris such as nails, drywall, chemicals, sewage, and other household materials that could contain toxic substances.”

They added that the collapses have left septic tanks “that dump concentrated human sewage onto the beach and out to sea.” And even before homes collapse, storms and high tides can expose and damage their sewage treatment plants and release sewage to the public beaches.”

The groups said government agencies have a responsibility to eliminate the health threats they say are threatening the safety of visitors and to protect the national seaboard for the use and enjoyment of future generations.

“Government officials at all levels have a responsibility to prevent dangerous threats to the safety of residents and tourists on the North Carolina coast,” said Julie Youngman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The situation in Rodanthe is only getting worse with sea level rise and more violent storms due to climate disruption.”

The letters urge government agencies to address the exposed and abandoned septic tanks, the public health hazards posed by debris from previous collapses and the risk posed by houses that are most likely to collapse next. The letters state that in the face of climate change, these risks must be addressed before another house collapses.

“Immediate action is required to remove exposed sewer systems and threatened coastal structures to prevent further degradation of the coastal environment and to protect the safety and well-being of the public,” said Alyson Flynn, coastal activist and environmental economist at the North Carolina Coastal Federation. “We support and urge our decision makers to use their authority to clean up our coast and ensure coastal management measures protect our coast.”

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