2017-04-06 / Front Page

Flushing out our waste stream

20% of septic systems fail required test
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff


JOE WILLIAMS of Williams & Bay Pumping and senior field technician Shaun Smedley (from left) prepare to pump a septic tank in Kasson Township. Smedley has been with Williams’ company for 10 years. JOE WILLIAMS of Williams & Bay Pumping and senior field technician Shaun Smedley (from left) prepare to pump a septic tank in Kasson Township. Smedley has been with Williams’ company for 10 years. It’s the big necessity that no one wants to talk about.

It’s vital to our health and the health of the water within and surrounding the Leelanau Peninsula.

Yet, why is Michigan one of the few states in the country without a comprehensive septic code?

“We don’t need one,” said Tom Fountain, director of environmental health for the Benzie- Leelanau District Health Department (BLDHD). “The soil conditions statewide are so diverse — one code wouldn’t do it.”

Such a standard might dilute septic standards already in place in Leelanau and Benzie counties.

“We require 48 inches isolation from the high water table,” Fountain said. “Other places in the state require just two feet or 18 inches.

“A statewide code would force us to lower our standards.”

One need only hop in a car and drive around the county to see the many and varied ways receding glaciers impacted the Leelanau landscape. A 1973 soil survey by the United States Department of Agriculture identified eight soil “associations” in Leelanau County.

Our county’s soil is much more diverse than its population.

Still, more than 90 percent of Leelanau and Benzie county homeowners have a septic tank and drain field on their property. For the most part, those varied soil components are up to the task of treating human waste.

Private septic systems work by taking household wastewater, separating out solids and floating components, and then slowly percolating the remaining liquid into the soil.

When working properly, private septic and drain systems, diseasecausing organisms that may be present in human waste are killed.

According to the department website, the BLDHD issues more on-site septic and well permits per capita than any other environmental health division in the state.

Sanitarians use the department’s septic sanitary code to regulate the type, size and location of on-site disposal. According to the code, septic tanks must be located at least 50 feet from any potable water supply including water wells, springs, lakes, ponds, creeks, or other potential surface water source.

No tanks can be located closer than 5 feet to any footing or foundation wall. And tanks must also be accessible for cleaning and inspection.

“On-site is a good disposal method,” Fountain said. “It allows for treatment.”

Poor soils lead to poor treatment

However, not all soils at every building site are appropriate for disposal. Historically, holding tanks have been the go-to method of disposal on lands with high water tables, swampy areas, or wet areas adjacent inland lakes.

Interestingly, Leelanau, Benzie and Grand Traverse are the only three counties in the state that issue holding tank systems for new construction as opposed to existing residences.

While those holding tanks don’t contaminate soils, they also don’t represent an efficient way to treat human waste.

In 2005, health department staffers examined the number of holding tanks in Leelanau County by township and documented the volume of septage created. At the time, some 568 holding tanks collected 4.9 million gallons of waste for disposal. The holding tanks represented about 60 percent of the county’s total septage output — which includes septage pumped from septic tanks — in the county.

Centerville and Bingham townshps had 94, and 93 holding tanks respectively— the highest number among the county’s 11 townships. Kasson Township, known for its gravely and well-draining soils, had none.

“(The report) was part of an impact evaluation of the changes in the septage law that passed in 2004,” sanitarian Bill Crawford said.

After pumping, haulers are required to take the material to an approved septic waste receiving facility, if the pump-out was within 15 miles radius of the facility. Later this increased to a 25-mile radius.

That meant that the waste, which had previously been applied to land in rural areas, would have to be trucked into Traverse City. And as a result, the cost of pump outs increased from $100 to upwards of $250.

A change in the sanitary code in 2001 allowed installation of alternative systems on sites that met a minimum of one foot of suitable natural soils.

Three years later, another amendment to the code was passed allowing two feet of soil to be added to failed existing drain fields. New builds were excluded from the provision.

Homeowners with holding tanks didn’t have that option.

Bingham Township resident and Lake Leelanau property owner John Popa for more than seven years has been asking the Board of Health to change the code to allow the option for homeowners who have holding tanks.

“That way they can get out of these expensive holding tanks and into a more modern system,” he said.

What you can’t see might hurt

What can be done to ensure that current septic systems are working effectively?

A “point-of-sale” (POS) ordinance has been in place in Benzie County since 1990. It requires septic tank inspections when properties are sold. Systems that fail must be brought into compliance either before the sale or within 150 days after a deed is recorded.

“In the first few years there were a lot of improvements needed,” Fountain said. “Now, there aren’t many at all.”

During the past 10 years there have been at least two pushes to adopt a similar county-wide ordinance in Leelanau. However, the efforts have fallen by the wayside with a majority of commissioners opposed, citing an erosion of private property rights.

The Village of Empire was the first community in the county to adopt a POS ordinance in January 2013.

Initially Health Department staffers were called upon to make the inspections. However, there’s been no BLDHD involvement since May 2013 when the ordinance was amended to eliminate mandatory compliance.

“We’re not involved in Empire’s ordinance anymore,” Fountain said. “Why have the ordinance if you can’t get them to upgrade?”

Glen Arbor Township adopted its own POS ordinance in June 2014, similar to that used in Benzie County. In 2016, about 20 percent of the 44 or 45 properties inspected by the BLDHD did not pass and needed to be upgraded.

“Some are old or undersized or the construction type is improper,” sanitarian Clay McNitt said. “A good portion are just old and there’s improper isolation distance from the water system, seasonal water table or surface water.”

Popa is calling for the county to revisit the POS issue.

“It’s time for the county to face up to the fact that it’s needed,” Popa said. “People started talking about it 10 years ago and the systems that were old are 10 years older.”

He cited the specific need to look at the growing number of part-time rentals that were previously used by families for a month or two out of the year. Now many of those homes are filled throughout the warmer months.

“Inspections should be part of their permit process ... to make sure the systems are able to handle 10 or 20 more people every week,” Popa said.

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