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Rural septic systems can be a threat to the environment



  Many homes in rural areas of Michigan rely on septic systems, that is: individual wastewater treatment systems. One published report says up to one (point) four million septic systems still remain in Michigan. An estimated 21 million are in use nationwide. That translates to millions of possible leaks and system failures.


Amy Robinson takes a look at the threat septic systems pose to Michigan’s environment and what communities are doing to address it.



Scott Jones and Ryan Packer are out in the field. They work for the Central Michigan District Health Department. This job takes them to a home near HIggins Lake in Gladwin county for a point of sale inspection on a septic system. They measure… and calculate. One of their most-used tool is the Pythagorean Theorem.


Jones and Packer inspect the soil and the stone in the drain field. Jones says "The stone itself should resemble the color variations of the stone when it was put in. What we don't want to see, is we don't want to see obviously any water above the stone. Sometimes you can have a failure, say someone had some leaky plumbing in there and the system starts to fail, and things go back to a working order. The stone can give us that information by, often you'll see a black residue that's stained, discolored the stone and it also will do it to the soil".


This kind of inspection is the main way health officials discover faulty septic systems. This one checked out.


But when a there’s a problem, it can be … and I debated what adjective to use... significant… unhealthy.... Gross. Jones explains, "probably the worse one I've ever see, there was a lady that had her house up for sale and the people hired a private inspector to come in and evaluate their system, and he turned it down. And of course the seller didn't like that and contacted me and asked if we would do the evaluation. I did".


He says he saw the septic tank was only half full and was stunned when the homeowner said they had never had it pumped. In 12-years. He asked them to hire someone to pump the tank and he  planned to come back to monitor. "As I was leaving that day, I just took and put about a half a bottle of dye in the tank Figured it would take weeks for it to come out. Well the next day, Wixom Lake lit up like antifreeze. And what we found out when the pumper got there was that somebody, not these people that owned it, but the previous owners, had taken and chiseled along the septic tank and then ran a tile alongside of that all the way to the seawall of the lake. It was a direct discharge going from the septic tank to the lake".


And that, Jones says is one example of why we need septic inspections.


He says all systems will fail… many within 10-12 years. They may last longer with good maintenance, think: pumping the tank every three years.  They may fail soon if they’re abused...if you use lots of detergents and bleaches, or dumb oils or paint thinner into the system.
Whenever it happens and whatever the cause, septic failures can send raw sewage into the environment.


Jones says there are warning signs a homeowner can watch for. "Probably for the average homeowner, the initial problems will start inside the home. Drains will slow down. Toilets won't flush, they'll gurgle, like letting the water out of a bathtub or something, it will start gurgling, bubbling up. That would be your intital signs that you're having issues".


And then in your yard… Erma Bombeck famously said the Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank.  Jones says, if it is, that could be a sign of problems. Other signs; if your yard is spongy over the tank or drain field, or if you see or smell wastewater.

Jones says often times problems are reported to health officials, not by the homeowner, but by a neighbor. "I think there's less toleration of things that are done incorrectly. Back in the 70's, people might say 'my neighbor's system goes out to the ditch. That's just John's system', or something like that. People are not acceptable to that today"

Ultimately, Jones describes an inspection system that leaves a lot of wiggle room. Long-time homeowners may go years, or even generations, without having their septic system checked.  He says the idea of licensing systems comes up periodically… but it never gets traction politically. "You get a permit to put one in, and now you have a license, just like a driver's license, that every so many years, whether that be three, five or ten years, you need to renew that license, which would require us to come out and evaluate the system and say 'yep, it's ok, here's your license to operate for the next', however many years they propose it for. I think we're a long ways away from that. A lot of the general public views that as a tax, which it's understandable why they feel that way. But on the flip side, it's probably the most equal opportunity way that you're going to determine if systems are operating satisfactorily".


Until and unless  septic licenses become law, communities and the environment will rely on point-of-sale inspections, watchful neighbors and honest homeowners to ensure that septic systems don’t become a hazard to neighborhoods and nature.

Amy began working for WCMU in late-2006. She is the local host of All Things Considered, and WCMU's News Director. She is responsible for leading a team of reporters covering stories throughout WCMU's 44 county coverage area.