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Local septic policies have traction, but demands for state codes are sticking around

Point of sale inspection1
Teresa Homsi
/
WCMU
Home inspector Matt Indish examines the inside of a septic tank during a "point of sale" inspection June 15 in Kalkaska.

As a home inspector, Matt Indish has seen the worst of septic systems.

“We had one that was a failed system that was 31 feet from the water,” he said. “That’s the equivalent of walking down to your dock and using your dock as your restroom.”

For Indish, maintaining septic systems is a no-brainer. When they fail, they can contaminate drinking water and surface waters with sewage.

I joined Indish on a “point of sale” inspection in Kalkaska. The home we visited was on a lake - and for sale.

But before it can be sold - the well and septic system have to be inspected.

During the inspection, Indish checked the well for any issues. He collected some tap water that will later be tested by the county to make sure the well isn’t contaminated.

After some poking in the ground, Indish found the septic tank, which he makes sure isn’t too full and the pipes aren’t clogged. Throughout his inspection, Indish took measurements of the distance of the well and septic from the lake.

Man standing by lake with measuring tape
Teresa Homsi
/
WCMU
Home inspector Matt Indish measures the distance between the well and lake during a "point of sale" inspection June 15 in Kalkaska.

The drainage field, however, was a mystery. Indish wasn’t sure he found it, so he decided to wait for the county’s records. He will return another day, with a more detailed layout of the septic system.

We visited a second home, where Indish suspected an “active failure.” He already completed an initial check, but wanted to be absolutely sure before he labels the home a “priority 1” - the worst score.

“The ground is really spongy [at the second site],” Indish said. “There is no water on the surface, but you can see the path [of plant growth] in the backyard where the leaching is going.”

This time, Indish dug into the drainage field to look for signs of a failing system like standing water, a strong scent, dark stone and even bits of toilet paper.

Man drills into the ground
Teresa Homsi
/
WCMU
Home inspector Matt Indish drills into a drainage field to search for signs of a failing septic system June 15 in Kalkaska.

Indish will share his findings with the county sanitarian to make the final call. If it’s a failing system, the current homeowner will need to fix it before they can sell it.

Point of sale programs can help catch what otherwise could be a serious environmental and public health issue, but they’re not required state-wide.

Michigan is the only state that doesn’t have a uniform sanitary code for wells and septic systems for most homes and small businesses, which pump less than 10,000 gallons a day.

Instead, local health departments set the standards, and they primarily focus on how septic systems are built and installed -- not maintained. Regulations can vary drastically between health departments.

Kalkaska County is only one of a dozen counties in Michigan that require point of sale inspections, according to Clean Action Water.

Kacey Cook is a policy specialist with the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. Her organization helped guide the implementation of “point of sale” programs in Kalkaska and Manistee Counties, as well as some townships.

“Our hope is that we can spur interest in each individual, local government about what options are available and how they might address this issue in their own community,” Cook said.

Cook said the council also advocates at the state and federal level - but currently sees the most opportunity for immediate change, locally.

“In a perfect world, we would have all of our wastewater being properly processed, and all of our waterways would be protected - when that isn't the case,” she said.

There are over a million septic systems in Michigan. The watershed council estimates that at least 10 percent have failed and more than one-third are not functioning properly.

“For a state that is so defined by water like we are, that just seems almost unconscionable,” said Seth Phillips, Kalkaska County Drain Commissioner.

Phillips fought the county when it attempted to repeal the point of sale program in 2019. He said local initiatives and a recent state loan program for system repairs are promising, but more needs to be done.

“I'm hopeful that all of these efforts will create some momentum at the state legislature level to do what we really need done, which is to join the other 49 states, who say, ‘you know, we really can't leave all this stuff unregulated,’” Phillips said.

Dan Thorell is a health officer at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. He said uniform state codes sound like a good idea, but they have not always been supported by health departments. For example, septic inspections every five years are not always feasible for health departments to implement due to funding and staff limitations.

“In our jurisdiction alone, you're talking about 40,000 septic systems,” Thorell said. “If you tried to inspect them every five years, I would have to probably build a couple buildings and higher tons of people to make that happen.”

Thorell said he supports “point of sale” inspections and policy initiatives - as long as they’re made in collaboration with health departments.

The issue is complicated, but Thorell said he sees opportunities to improve septic regulations. Private inspectors - like Matt Indish - are one option that can lessen the burden on health departments.

Before Indish showed up, the second home we looked at hadn’t been inspected since 1978.

Its septic tank was already too small when it was built as a two-bedroom home. Today, it has five bedrooms - and the tank hasn’t changed.

If the home was on the other side of the street, it would be in Antrim County, and the point of sale inspection would not have been required.

Indish said he thinks regulation is a necessary burden - otherwise, we should just go back to using outhouses.

“If it’s failing, it should be caught, it should be remedied,” Indish said. “Not just for that next person, but for the fact that we’re putting all of that in the world.”

There’s no guarantee on a statewide code - but outhouses aren’t making a comeback anytime soon. Advocates are making sure of that - even if it’s one county at a time.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corp Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She is covering rural environmental issues, public health and Michigan commerce. Homsi has a bachelor’s from Central Michigan University in environmental studies, journalism and anthropology. During her undergraduate, she was a beat reporter for CMU’s student newspaper Central Michigan Life and interned for the Huron Daily Tribune. She has also interned for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy in the superfund section. *Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms, more info at https://www.reportforamerica.org/