By Lester Graham, Michigan Radio
The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; blue circle; Great Lakes now on Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impacts of climate change, pollution and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. All works can be found HERE.
According to state estimates, there are more than 330,000 defective septic tank systems in Michigan. They could contaminate lakes, rivers and groundwater. Government agencies don’t have the power to do much about it. And many homeowners don’t have the money to do much.
Cindy Krohn and her husband have a steady income. Five years ago, they were in the process of buying a home in Linwood, a small unincorporated community on Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron.
“We noticed that there was some drain leaking from the crawl space. The inspector noticed that and they then drained and cleaned the septic tank and we figured that was all that needed to be done because then it was fine for a couple of months,” Krohn said.
But then they noticed a sewer smell every time they did the laundry.
The system fails. It costs at least $10,000 and up to $20,000. Krohn says they don’t have that much money and can’t afford a loan. You can only have the septic tank pumped out every few months.
“That’s $250 every time they come out,” she said.
This type of story is frustrating for some of those involved in the septic tank industry.
“Why we have governments that can’t protect these things and can’t work together enough to protect our waterways is beyond me. I don’t get it,” said Rick Throop, president of the Michigan Septic Tank Association.
He runs a septic tank service company in Macomb County. There, before selling a home, the district requires a full sewage treatment plant inspection, and the seller must fix any problems.
“So if you’re rolling out a point-of-sale program. These things don’t happen, houses don’t get lost. People don’t get screwed in the long run because the problems are found before ownership is transferred,” he said.
Very few counties or health authorities require this. A few years ago there were laws to try and do this nationwide and find some money to help people or communities that need help. This legislation was blocked.
Among the opponents was the Michigan Realtors Association. Brad Ward, the organization’s vice president of public policy and legal affairs. He said real estate agents support an inspection system, just not one at the point of sale, because the group doesn’t think it’s efficient or fair.
Here’s the argument: Let’s say you’ve lived in your house for 20 years. The house next door has been sold three times in the last 15 years.
“Their septic system has never been inspected, while mine has been inspected three times in the same 15-year period,” Ward said.
It makes more sense for brokers to keep a law that requires regular inspections every five or ten years.
This is not a problem for most homeowners in the state. They are connected to a municipal sewage system. You pay a monthly fee. Your wastewater is not only cleaned, but also disinfected before it is released into the environment.
Septic tank owners don’t really think about the cost as long as the drain doesn’t back up. Few of these homeowners put money aside for the possible moment when the system fails. A failing sewage system threatens public health because that sewage is not disinfected. pathogens such as Coli bacteria and viruses can enter drinking water sources.
At worst, homeowners who cannot afford to repair the septic tank system will dump it into nearby ditches or make unauthorized connections to storm drains.
The current legislature does not plan any state-wide test regulations. Instead, it’s considering using some of the US bailout money to fix the immediate problem: those septic systems that are failing.
Senator Rosemary Bayer, a Democrat, said it totaled $140 million.
“And includes revolving loan funds for individual homeowners. It includes grant funding for communities with fewer than five thousand residents.”
That sounds good, but of that $140 million, $35 million is for septic lending. That falls far short of the at least $3.3 billion needed to just repair the currently defective sewage treatment plants. That’s based on the 330,000 broken septic systems each requiring $10,000 in repairs. The more likely scenario is a much, much higher amount.
But Senator Bayer said you have to start somewhere and there is bipartisan support. It’s part of a broader package of bills that Senate Republicans have proposed and Democrats have backed to help solve many of Michigan’s water and sanitation problems.
“We have a program now. Well, I should say that we approved the funding in the Senate. Negotiations are still ongoing with the House of Representatives.”
But even if it’s approved and the governor signs it off, it doesn’t really solve the problem for Cindy Krohn. She said even a low-interest loan is out of reach, and she knows other Michigan people are in the same place. She has searched the internet for help and asked every office she can think of for advice.
“There has to be some kind of program because the majority of people don’t have more than $20,000 to fix a septic system. Most people don’t have that. And it’s something you have to have. You can’t put that off for years. And nobody has answers. And we just don’t know what to do.”
In addition to the revolving loan program, the law, if passed, could give counties some grant money to help homeowners repair sewer systems. It will still mean these homeowners will have to come up with thousands of dollars or even tens of thousands depending on how much work is required to fix the septic system.
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Featured Image: When septic tank systems fail and homeowners don’t have the money to fix it, some resort to illegal outlets like this one. Toilet paper and human waste flow out of this pipe after homeowners are illegally hooked up to it. (Credit: Lester Graham/Michigan Radio)