Septic system oversight: Advocates say new Indiana law could trigger environmental, health risks | Don’t Miss This
ALEXANDRIA – In September 2022, raw sewage was discovered flowing into Pipe Creek outside city limits.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management fined Madison County $1,700 and the county was required to submit a compliance plan that included developing a water and wastewater infrastructure needs assessment.
The wastewater likely came from a nearby residential area, with no homeowners association to address the problem. Because the site is in an unincorporated area, responsibility for resolving the matter fell to the county.
Similar incidents could become more common after the Indiana Legislature passed House Enrolled Act 1402 during its regular session earlier this year. The new law, signed into law in May by Gov. Eric Holcomb, essentially transfers authority over local residential sewage systems from local health departments to homeowners, according to environmental advocates, who they say rely on consultants with financial interests in installing sewage systems could.
“This bill … has the potential to increase the number of failed sewer systems in Indiana,” Dr. Indra Frank, director of environmental health and water policy at the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Unfortunately, failure of the wastewater system can result in untreated or inadequately treated wastewater remaining free or flowing into some of our streams and waterways.”
Frank noted that IDEM issued a report late last year that estimated more than 7,000 river miles in the state were infested with E. coli, including significant stretches of the Wabash River. Sewage overflows and untreated rainwater and sewage into nearby waterways were cited as the largest sources of the bacteria. Failing sewage treatment plants are one of the main culprits, she said.
PATCHWORK RECORD KEEPING
According to the Indiana Department of Health, more than 800,000 sanitation systems are currently in use across the state. Local health departments issue more than 15,000 permits for new systems and about 6,000 permits for repairs annually.
Keeping track of the location of these systems and their current status is largely left to local health departments or other government units. There is currently no nationwide system to monitor their existence or need for repair. IDOH estimates that up to 200,000 of these systems are inadequate, failing, or in the process of failing.
The risks to the environment and public health are alarming, officials say.
“We have a low water IQ as a society,” said Tim Stottlemyer, chief executive officer of Clear Choices Clean Water, a national program aimed at raising consumer awareness of the impact their daily lifestyle habits have on the nation’s waterways. Because E. coli is one of the most common pollutants in surface waters, “doing something about it should be high on our priority list. I am not convinced that this legislation is the right approach to solving this problem.”
Stottlemyer said a better approach would be to provide funding and other resources to local health departments to help property owners keep an eye on their drainage systems and mitigate problems as they arise.
“Instead of tying the hands of health officials, give them more resources so they can do their jobs better,” Stottlemyer said.
Would requiring inspections help?
Madison County officials have access to septic tank records dating back to 1974, according to Joe Davis, assistant administrator and environmental officer for the Madison County Health Department. However, converting those paper records into electronic form is a laborious process, he stressed.
“Back then it was a one-sided application with a soil analysis,” Davis said. “They are not available online, and a big reason for that is that some of these sites were rural sites, PO boxes, etc. Their conversion takes time.”
Davis said concerns about HEA 1402 are understandable, but he stopped short of arguing that the new law could be used to circumvent sensible health and environmental regulations.
“I think there are very, very few circumstances under which a homeowner would choose to do this,” he said. “When it comes to new construction, we are expected to comply closely with the regulations.”
He added that standards established in state law ensure that residential sewage systems are built to the highest possible standards.
“Everyone wants to protect the environment,” he said. “I don’t think any engineer will say, ‘We’re going to bypass the health department and let your system run into the drain. I don’t expect any major impact on the environment.”
Advocates have either proposed a state law or urged local governments to adopt ordinances requiring regular inspections of wastewater systems. However, they recognize that existing recommendations for inspections approximately every three years already cover much of this area.
“I suppose it would depend on the time period (given),” Davis said. “I don’t think you really need to do that often.”
Frank added: “Based on my knowledge of wastewater treatment plants and the fact that when they are not properly maintained we create these public health and environmental problems through sewage leaks, it makes perfect sense to inspect wastewater treatment plants on a regular basis. ”