Guest Column | August 8, 2018

Septic Systems: The Good, The Bad, And Hyperbole

By Dendra Best, WasteWaterEducation.org

Septic Systems: The Good, The Bad, And Hyperbole

Sorting through practical, legal, and environmental considerations related to Michigan House Bills 5752 and 5753 — proposed oversight for onsite wastewater treatment systems

The last time a question was asked on the U.S. Census concerning how properties received sewage treatment was 28 years ago.

Regardless, in the intervening years, all Michigan local health departments have reported, on an annual basis, their permitting and regulatory actions concerning onsite wastewater systems.

How, then, can the same data, quoted in then-Governor Jennifer Granholm’s 2004 address, be routinely requoted without the benefit of revision?

As recently as November 2017, a respected Michigan magazine was still saying:

“The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimates there are 130,000 failing systems currently operating in Michigan. That represents about 1-in-10 of more than 1.3-million systems installed statewide. DEQ further estimates that Michigan’s numerous failing septic systems release upwards of 31 million gallons of raw sewage every day into our groundwater.”

An identical quote was published in 2013 and 2006. We at WasteWaterEducation.org published this ourselves in 2004, except 14 years ago the figure was 1.2 million systems with 60 million gallons being land applied.

This estimate, “31 million gallons of raw sewage every day,” translates to 240 gallons per ‘failing’ system which, unless all 240 gallons are running on the surface, is percolating through a soil treatment area. 

If a majority of onsite waste is now treated at a municipal plant, all of that is directly surface discharged to receiving waters and as biosolid land application.

Hyperbole and disputed findings have muddied the receiving waters of a true scientific discussion, with sentences such as “Despite the tremendous public health threat posed by these failing systems, Michigan is the only state in the country without a uniform septic code. ‘Tremendous public health threat’? Really?

We all agree that direct exposure to raw human sewage DOES pose a risk to public and environmental health, but if this is how all onsite wastewater treatment systems are portrayed in Michigan, that flies in the face of U.S. and international research and established technology. 

There are reasons the average life expectancy has doubled in this country in the past 100 years, and certainly a better understanding and implementation of onsite sanitation — plus safe drinking water technology, plus local regulatory oversight —  is one of them. 

Properly performing, appropriate onsite wastewater systems are not the ubiquitous stinking holes in the ground as portrayed. They provide equal and often more affordable options for treatment and safe dispersal. They are part of the water cycle itself. At issue with this proposed legislation is how to define when onsite systems are not performing and how to bring them back into compliance — and, perhaps more to the point, how to pay for that? The current proposal stands to become another unfunded, or vastly underfunded, mandate with the health departments doing 90 percent of the work but sending most of the fees to the state. 

Onsite systems are NOT appropriate for all locations. No one in public health would dispute that oversight of sound design, installation, O&M maintenance, and licensing should be on the same footing as the rulemaking for municipal centralized sewage systems. But, for a little perspective, the U.S. EPA estimates that there are at least 23,000 to 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) per year. In 2016 alone, Michigan reported that combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in the state discharged a volume of 25 billion gallons of treated wastewater — so we advocate for a little ramping down of the rhetoric and a little more perspective of risk. (Source: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-05/documents/gls_cso_report_to_congress_-_4-12-2016.pdf)

25 BILLION gallons? 

Here’s just one of those instances:

“A broken line was found on March 7, 2018, but estimates are that it had been leaking since Jan. 19, according to a report made to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. An estimated 1.1 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into a lake. MDEQ said the water was tested for E. coli, the bacterium found in human and animal intestines, and found the levels were "below acceptable limits. The cold weather is a determining factor, as is the rapid flow of water through the lake.”

Two hundred and forty gallons of percolating septic fluid seems pretty insignificant in comparison — albeit quite significant if it’s on top of your lawn or your neighbor's!

The rationale to enact a statewide baseline code complains that Michigan is the only state without one — but how have our close neighboring states fared? Is this necessarily a bad thing, or an empty piece of rhetoric being put on loudspeaker for well-funded lobbyists? What is really behind the current legislation?

In 2004, our organization had two directors on a substantive Michigan statewide stakeholder group that met in public, published its minutes and discussion documents, but ultimately could not agree on what was enforceable, affordable, or even necessary.

Several attempts have taken place in the intervening years, driven by differing agendas and desired outcomes. But, ultimately, it all comes down to money. Who will pay and who will be paid to actually enforce the eventual rules? If a system is found non-compliant, where are the funds to assist the property owner to repair or replace, regardless of income? All stick and no carrot makes for a very unhappy local politician coffee morning!

With the advent of the current process, and in light of many misconceptions and evident distrust in the process, our organization was asked to conduct public roundtable discussions to look at the actual initial drafts once they became widely publicly leaked.

The initial timing was both appropriate and ironic as we headed into the March ‘Sunshine Week’, which reminds us all of the value of the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act — the public’s right to know what their elected officials are up to. It is our belief that consensus based on civil discourse, which takes place in the open light of public access, is never a bad thing. The secretive nature of the current process has led to unnecessary distrust of motives and, perhaps more importantly, a distinct lack of input from the very health agencies charged with protecting environmental health! Shouldn’t the loudest, most credible, voices be those who have devoted their professional lives to protecting public health?

In 2004, we published a set of proposed compromises suggesting that, rather than a statewide one-size-fits-all approach, a regional water management structure be established, led by local health agencies. Now, 14 years later, with the concept of ‘one water’ management endorsed by all major water environmental agencies, it would seem an appropriate time to take another look at allowing for that kind of regional approach to identifying water management based on soils, geology, and demographics that has worked so well in northwest Michigan. [See https://youtu.be/J0kY2eVrJD4]

For the past three years, we have been active partners in the Great Lakes Commission ‘Fractured Waters’ initiative to identify cost-effective means to implementing water management across political boundaries. When we talk about ‘disposal,’ exactly where do we think ‘it’ goes? [See https://www.glc.org/work/greater-lakes/team]

Scare tactics and politics have no place in an agreement to protect the waters and the citizens of Michigan. Of this we can all surely agree? When the average adult has barely an 8th Grade memory of basic physics, biology, and chemistry, how we frame this discussion matters. To close an article with “Until then, beware that that beautiful northern Michigan stream may not be quite as pure as you’d expect in Pure Michigan” flies in the face of a basic understanding of biology. If there are rivers of human excrement flowing past riverfront cottages, please send us a picture?

This IS serious business. No one wants to wait for a mass waterborne illness outbreak to actually DO something! But, equally, we live in a world dependent on microbes — to be totally sanitized is to be sterile and dead.

Local studies seem to conflate the presence of ‘fecal matter’ with a minimal DNA study to determine its origin and species sourcing. It MUST be septic systems, even though rural areas routinely take wastewater treatment plant biosolids and some still permit land application of onsite system waste. As Mark Twain quoted, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” If you begin a study with the desired end result as the focus, is this science? In 2011, we hosted Al Alwan, PhD [then of EPA Region 5 - Water Quality Branch, Water Division] in a web-based seminar on Alternative Approaches to Address Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCP) Environmental Fate. 

There were two points of direct relevance to this current discussion: 1) inland waterways will never be as sanitized as public swimming pools; and 2) when we choose what to focus our attention on, we need to choose the most evident and risk-inherent hazard. In this current piece of legislation, who wins and who loses?

This is not meant to totally disparage the current reports upon which the ‘all septics pollute’ justification for the legislation rests. What is missing is identification of other possible sources.

If the issue is runoff, then address runoff through bioswales, application condition constraints, and wastewater treatment plant discharges. For ‘every major watershed’ to show evidence of raw human sewage is alarming AND alarmist — and frankly leaves local environmental health agencies scratching their collective heads, wondering where the inevitable mass waterborne disease outbreaks have been hiding. If the issue is underperformance, specific health jurisdictions then provide the funding and staffing levels to help them do a better job. It’s worth noting that the mandated level of local health department funding supposedly allocated by the state has rarely, if ever, been received.

Consider, too, that the state is currently considering House Bill 4438, an exemption for agriculture to have to comply with Part 117. The bill would amend Part 117 (Septage Waste Servicers) of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to exempt a farm operation from requirements related to cleaning, removing, transporting, or disposing of septage waste. [Source: http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2017-2018/billanalysis/Senate/pdf/2017-SFA-4438-L.pdf ]

Perhaps most puzzling — and indicative of an almost Orwellian-worthy ‘doublespeak’ — is the pretzel-like contortions of those using this proposed legislation to justify a total elimination of local onsite system inspections at the time of sale or transfer of a property?

If this legislation has a stated goal of protecting the environment, why would anyone want to abandon incredibly successful programs that over the past many years have caught and corrected failing or undersized wastewater systems? Why not just provide the funding directly to local health departments to replicate what already works?

Cynics may see the influence of politics and money.

For an example of how this process has already played out, read about the experience of the Barry-Eaton Time of Sale Ordinance at https://county-journal.com/communities/eaton-county/barry-eaton-board-of-health-votes-to-begin-repeal-of-tost/.

If you are in the market for a new home, under the proposed new rules you are on your own, in the dark about the thousands of dollars in repairs you might be on the hook for down the line — unless either you or the seller ‘volunteer’ to do an inspection of your onsite system. Realtor associations think it’s more important not to ‘impede’ the sale than protect your investment — oh, and the environment as well. Buyer beware.

Not much point complaining to your local health department either — they used to have those protections in place, but they are being outspent and out-politicked.

As this legislation progresses, perhaps you should speak up and talk to your local elected officials and say simply: ‘Whose interests are you really looking out for?’

And if you would like to be part of an impartial, independent, common-sense ‘Michigan rulemaking’ discussion group, drop us a line.

See:

HB 5752 of 2018
Environmental protection; sewage; onsite wastewater treatment systems; regulate, and provide for assessments and evaluations. Amends 1978 PA 368 (MCL 333.1101 - 333.25211) by adding pt. 128. TIE BAR WITH: HB 5753'17
http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?2018-HB-5752

and

HB 5753 of 2018
Environmental protection; sewage; onsite wastewater treatment systems; regulate and provide for assessments and evaluations. Amends sec. 12752 of 1978 PA 368 (MCL 333.12752) & adds secs. 12802, 12808 & 12809. TIE BAR WITH: HB 5752'17
http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?2018-HB-575

Image credit: "Septic Systems and Steep Slopes (32)," Soil Science © 2004, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/