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Great Lakes Article:

Septic systems pose new threat
20% of tanks leak into waterways

By Jennifer Chambers / The Detroit News
03/09/2002

   SOUTHFIELD -- Every two years Diane Reeder breathes a sigh of relief after learning the septic tank at her home has again passed inspection.
   But the breathing isn't so easy around her neighbor's house, where a leaky septic system has created quite a stink.
   "I have a neighbor with a problem. I know from the smell. Let's just say it's not pleasant. I don't want to sit on my back porch at night," Reeder said.
   Across southeast Michigan, about 200,000 homes use the big underground sewage-disposal tanks. Of those, about 20 percent are leaking, according to local health and environmental officials.
   That means tens of thousands of Metro Detroiters are flushing their toilets right into rivers, lakes and streams.
   "Without question it's one of the more significant problems facing Michigan's waterways," Ken Silfven, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said. "Septics are OK when functioning properly, but when they break down that's when the problems come in."
   Little is being done to police illicit septics, but Oakland County Drain Commissioner John McCulloch wants to change that. He has proposed establishing a countywide program to require proactive inspections of septic tanks every five years.
   McCulloch says new federal rules under the Clean Water Act are forcing local governments to have programs in place by March 2003 to stem the flow of sewage from private septic systems into streams and lakes.
   McCulloch appeared before U.S. District Judge John Feikens on Thursday to detail his two-year watershed management program that would help communities in Oakland County detect failing septic systems. The program would also educate the public on storm water issues and plan pollution control.
   Of Oakland County's 80,000 septic systems, the number leaking ranges from 20 to 40 percent according to McCulloch, and could be as high as 52 percent according to an Oakland County Health Division study.
   McCulloch is proposing mandatory five-year inspections and a countywide ordinance that would require inspections when homes are sold. Wayne, Washtenaw and Macomb counties have similar ordinances but don't require mandatory inspections. The ordinances alone are not enough to protect the public health, McCulloch said.
   "If you look at the hundreds of lakes, rivers and streams -- the areas that need the inspection the most -- these are areas where typically the homes don't sell on a regular basis. If we are going to do this, I'd like to do it right," McCulloch said.
   Septic tanks in high-priority areas would be tested at the same time to allow the county to analyze the results together and meet with community leaders to discuss the results. Such an approach would allow problems to be addressed on a large scale, if necessary, such as the installation of new septics or sewer lines.
   The county would qualify and register private-sector inspectors for the work. The homeowner would bear the cost of the inspection, which ranges from $250 to 300.
   Tom Kalcofen, director of the Macomb County Health Department, said McCulloch has good insight on how to correct problems in his own community, but the same approach isn't necessarily right for Macomb.
   In Macomb County, roadside workers are sometimes responsible for locating leaky septics tanks among the 25,000 spread across the area. Crews survey roadside ditches looking for areas of melted ice or snow indicating a possible sewage release. Another measure is the county health department's Illicit Discharge program, which samples drain water and attempts to track contaminants back to the source.
   "There is not a cookbook approach to this stuff. You need to know your community and what works best. I think the way we approach the issue works for us," Kalcofen said.
   In Wayne County, at least 20 percent of the 10,000-20,000 septic system are failing, according to Stephen Tackitt, director of the Environmental Health Division in the Wayne County Health Department.
   Sixteen communities along the Rouge River fall under the county's inspection ordinance. In September, all septics in Wayne must be inspected prior to selling the property.
   Septic tanks in high-priority areas would be tested at the same time to allow the county to analyze the results together and meet with community leaders to discuss the results. Such an approach would allow problems to be addressed on a large scale, if necessary, such as the installation of new septics or sewer lines.
   The county would qualify and register private-sector inspectors for the work. The homeowner would bear the cost of the inspection, which ranges from $250 to 300.
   Tom Kalcofen, director of the Macomb County Health Department, said McCulloch has good insight on how to correct problems in his own community, but the same approach isn't necessarily right for Macomb.
   In Macomb County, roadside workers are sometimes responsible for locating leaky septics tanks among the 25,000 spread across the area. Crews survey roadside ditches looking for areas of melted ice or snow indicating a possible sewage release. Another measure is the county health department's Illicit Discharge program, which samples drain water and attempts to track contaminants back to the source.
   "There is not a cookbook approach to this stuff. You need to know your community and what works best. I think the way we approach the issue works for us," Kalcofen said.
   In Wayne County, at least 20 percent of the 10,000-20,000 septic system are failing, according to Stephen Tackitt, director of the Environmental Health Division in the Wayne County Health Department.
   Sixteen communities along the Rouge River fall under the county's inspection ordinance. In September, all septics in Wayne must be inspected prior to selling the property.
   Tackitt said failing septic systems are a threat to public health for everyone. A proactive program such as McCulloch's would identify failing systems sooner than what's in place in Wayne County, he said.
   "I'd rather find out about problems sooner than later," Tackitt said. "When you are dealing with failing sewage systems you are talking about the possibility of public health risk and people being exposed -- if that is happening around your neighborhood, it's a concern for everyone."
   McCulloch said local governments have two choices to prepare for the federal requirements: Manage the problem alone or allow the county to coordinate watershed districts and work within a specific drainage area to address water issues.
   To launch the program, McCulloch wants to consolidate hundreds of local drainage districts into five major drain districts based on the county's five major watersheds: the Huron, the Rouge, the Clinton, the Shiawassee and the Flint.
   Once established, these districts would address problems in individual communities and watersheds and also work with neighboring counties through an intergovernmental agreement to address water quality issues affecting the region.
   "The reality is there is a public health concern here," McCulloch said. "What I am suggesting is, let the county, through the drain office, take the lead and provide the mechanism to assist the local communities and solve some of these problems."
   The cost of McCulloch's entire program is $1 million over two years. Once the districts are formed, environmental planners would come in and work with communities to form education plans. Once the two years is up, it would be the responsibility of the drainage districts to continue the education and monitoring, McCulloch said.
   Mike Adams, whose company, R & R Ventures Inc. of Wixom, has been inspecting, repairing and installing septic tanks for 50 years in Oakland County, calls mandatory inspections a waste of time and money. Anyone who knows they have a bad system takes action to get it fixed, Adams said. "I wouldn't like the county coming to my home and having it inspected if I didn't have a problem," he said.
   Bill Pasquale of Michigan Disposal said regular visual inspections are the only way to detect leaks in systems that run deep underground. Pasquale drains septics and uses cameras to search for holes or pockets in tanks that can cause leakes or ruptures.
   He compared finding a leaking tank to discovering cancer -- once it has been detected it must be stopped.
   "The matter needs to be addressed. How else are we going to determine where the leaks are? There is no better way to do that than get inside the tank and look," Pasquale said.
   Before requiring mandatory septic inspections, Oakland County would be required to hold public hearings on the matter to gather public input.
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