Some want Michigan to regulate septic tanks to protect water quality

Megan Tinsley, water policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. Image: Michigan Environmental Council

By Elijah Taub

Being a state with direct access to plenty of fresh water creates opportunities for housing, jobs and tourism.

But the quality of Michigan's water is at risk because of poorly maintained septic tanks, according to environmental advocates who are pushing for legislation requiring regular inspections of septic tanks statewide.

Currently, it is up to local governments whether to regulate wastewater systems and order inspections at regular intervals or when ownership changes.

Despite its extensive network of rivers, streams and lakes, as well as groundwater, Michigan remains the only state without statewide sanitation regulations that would include wastewater treatment plants.

This means there is no government regulation for septic tank inspection, meaning a system could remain uninspected forever.

Michigan Environmental Council water policy director Megan Tinsley said, “There could well be E. coli in the wastewater. If a septic system is leaking, it could potentially leak into where someone’s well water is collected.”

Drinking water is at risk because leaks from septic tanks enter the groundwater, ultimately causing wastewater to enter the drinking water supply.

There are two bills pending that would address the problem of leaky sewage systems. They await review by the House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee.

If the bill passes, there would be standards for new and existing septic systems that would require inspections at the time of sale in all counties.

Sponsors include Democratic Reps. Phil Skaggs of East Grand Rapids, Sharon McDonnell of Troy, Donavan McKinney of Detroit, Kara Hope of Holt, Carol Glanville of Walker, Joey Andrews of St. Joseph and Laurie Pohutsky of Livonia, who chairs the Committee leads.

“We are working to get these bills passed,” Tinsley said. “Interested groups such as health departments, environmental groups and anyone with a strong interest in these bills have come together.”

Concerns about the legislation include the cost of staffing and facilities for state and county health departments, she said.

“If there’s an appropriate way to do this, I don’t see why not,” said Patrick Stewart, who owns real estate in Lewiston.

“It’s not like we have a lot of opportunities to go to the bathroom up here,” he said.

There is currently no national regulation for septic tank inspection. Some districts have created their own regulations. Additionally, some communities have adopted ordinances requiring septic tank inspections during the sales process.

The Petoskey-based Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council has reported on the potential dangers of failing to inspect wastewater systems. One of its problems is nutrients from the septic tanks leaking into the groundwater.

“Higher nutrient levels disrupt the ecosystem and certainly impact outdoor recreation,” Tinsley said.

Nutrients from septic tanks that leak into groundwater can end up in rivers and lakes, causing algae blooms. This significantly limits the enjoyment of water and activities such as fishing and canoeing.

Elijah Taub reports for Capital News Service

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