Over the past two years, about 27% more septic tank owners in Mahoning County have applied to Mahoning County Public Health for a permit to replace or modify their septic tanks than in 2021, the year before the county health department launched its new maintenance program.
Colton Masters, director of environmental health for the county health department, said replacing or repairing septic tanks is a result of the O&M program, whose goal is to register all septic tanks in the county and have them inspected to ensure they are function properly.
“I can't say whether those permits were pulled just because of O&M or because people knew they had to do that and they were planning on doing it anyway,” Masters said last week.
About 350 property owners in the county applied for permits to repair or replace their sewer systems in 2021. This number increased by 27% to approximately 445 permits in 2022 and remained at this level in 2023. The county has approximately 14,000 wastewater systems.
Masters said now that people know the O&M program is in place, many are taking steps to get their sewage system in order.
He said he believes septic tank owners realize they have a problem, especially when they know their septic system is being inspected.
“You'll see the problems, so I can deal with them right now,” Masters said.
He added: “That’s what we want. We would prefer people to be proactive when they know there is a problem rather than reactive and waiting for us to find it.”
Officials sent letters to 17,000 property owners in 2022 alerting them that the new program required by Ohio law is being implemented.
Residential wastewater treatment plants receive and treat household wastewater in areas without sewerage systems.
Masters said the new program will cost a property owner with a septic system $30 to $125 per year, plus other costs associated with pumping tanks or repairing or replacing systems. But the property owner also has advantages, such as the longer lifespan of his sewage treatment plant if it can be saved. The program is also intended to improve surface water quality in areas with wastewater treatment plants.
TWO YEARS AGO
2022 was also a big year for the most basic types of wastewater treatment plants – known as Stage 1. This year, property owners who verified they had a Stage 1 system were told they had three years to have their wastewater treatment plant inspected and possibly pumped by a service provider. Level 1 systems generally have one or more simple septic tanks and a leach field.
The following year focused on property owners who had Stage 2 or 3 septic systems, which do not discharge wastewater into a leach field but instead into other areas away from a person's property, such as streams. They are called off-lot unloading systems.
They are used on properties without sewers that are too small for a leach field. They typically use technologies such as ultraviolet light, pumps, chlorinators and aerators to treat wastewater, Masters said. Stage 3 systems require a permit from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
Level 3 systems also require annual sampling of water leaving the system. Since 2023, these tests have been carried out by health department employees, so-called paramedics. Masters said the change was made because service providers said they “didn’t want to do it anymore.”
A Stage 2 system is similar to a Stage 3 system but does not require EPA approval for Ohio, Masters said. Some systems did not require EPA approval due to the year of manufacture.
Level 2 and Level 3 systems are more sophisticated than Level 1 systems, but can be less expensive to install than a traditional leach field system because they do not require a leach field, Masters said.
There are approximately 9,000 Level 1 leach field systems, 4,200 Level 2 systems and approximately 859 Level 3 systems in the county.
LEVEL 2 AND 3 SYSTEMS
The 5,059 Level 2 and Level 3 systems were the focus of the Department of Health's efforts in 2023 and remain so this year, Masters said. These systems require an annual permit renewal instead of a three-year renewal for Level 1 systems.
The number of Stage 3 septic tanks in the county increased 11.4% in 2023 – from 771 at the start of the year to 859 at the end of the year. Masters said most of the new Level 3 systems in 2022 are due to replacement of a septic system.
Level 3 systems require annual water sampling, but that cost is included in the person's annual permit fee, Masters said.
“These types of systems have seen a significant uptick. That’s because most new septic systems may not fit there depending on the size of the property and the type of soil,” Masters said.
He said if a simple leach bed system does not fit on a person's property, the person must obtain an EPA permit and install a Level 3 system that does not use a leach field.
A leach field is a series of perforated PVC pipes in the ground that carry water from the septic tank into the ground for disposal.
“Once they give that (EPA) approval, you have to do annual sampling and participate in that Level 3 program,” Masters said.
The soil in Mahoning County isn't the best for wastewater treatment plants, Masters said. “We have a lot of clay. If you have a property that doesn't have a lot of topsoil and is mostly just clay, you may need that EPA permit” and a Level 3 system, he said.
“That's part of what our paramedics work on with the developers when they're building these homes and putting these systems in to make sure they can fit whatever they want on the property,” he said.
When a wastewater treatment plant fails, the owner sometimes has to abandon the leach field because that part of the property is no longer suitable for a leach field. If the property owner does not have other land to create a new leach field, it may be necessary to convert to a Level 3 system.
After using a property as a leach field for many years, “you've used up that leach area” and it can't be reused a second time, he said.
He added: “Then you need to look at a possible secondary area for that leach field to go into, if you have one.” If you don't do that, we say this lot is too small. “We have to fill out some paperwork to go through the EPA” to move to a Level 3 system with an EPA permit.
A Level 3 system is “typically much more complicated than a Level 1 system,” Masters said. “When you introduce an aerator and ultraviolet light, a chlorinator, those are these Level 2 and Level 3 systems. That's why they require so much more maintenance,” Masters said.
Level 2 and Level 3 systems require less space and dirt movement than a traditional leach field system, saving money.
“It doesn’t take up as much space or time,” he said. Despite the cost of the mechanical parts, it tends to be cheaper. “But that’s why you have to keep an eye on it. This mechanical stuff is often prone to breaking down. In the long run they could be about the same price. But it depends on the system type and maintenance,” Masters said.
The cost of a Level 2 or 3 system includes an annual maintenance contract to keep everything running. From 2022, all level 2 wastewater treatment plants were required to enter into a contract with a service provider to maintain the wastewater treatment plant. The Health Department's work to bring these systems into line will continue this year, Masters said.
Masters said he believes additional service providers have come to Mahoning County to provide septic services due to the additional septic work required by the O&M program.
“We created this niche with the O&M program,” he said. “Some of these Level 2 systems had a service contract, but not all of them. So if everyone has one, more of these companies will come into the area to service these systems.”
He said the compliance rate among Level 2 and 3 septic tank users is over 90% in 2023, which Masters described as “very good.” Owners of Level 2 and 3 systems must, among other things, return documentation for their wastewater treatment plant to the health department and pay their fees.
Masters said he has a Level 2 septic system at his home. “It has a service contract, an aeration unit, a chlorinator and filters in two different tanks,” he said.
The counties with the most sewer systems are Springfield, Beaver and Canfield townships. Not far behind are the townships of Smith, Austintown, Green, Poland and Goshen.
Townships such as Milton, Jackson, Berlin, Ellsworth and Coitsville have the second highest number. The cities of Youngstown, Campell and Struthers and Boardman Township have very few.
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