Talk of restricted access to disposal and unpredictable rate increases at municipal treatment plants cause great uncertainty for haulers.
Local municipal treatment plant officials are making noises that they will no longer be able to accept your septage loads. They say they’ve reached treatment capacity or the cost of processing loads from pumpers is becoming burdensome to the taxpayers. They talk about drastically raising the rates, or maybe taking only sludge pumped from homes and businesses within their city, town or county boundaries.
This is becoming an all-too-common problem in the pumping industry, especially in sprawling metropolitan areas where municipal wastewater plants face budgetary constraints at the same time as more new homes are relying on septic systems for treatment. On one hand, officials look for ways to limit incoming septic waste. But on the other hand, some accommodation is needed for the growing number of residents not hooked up to the Big Pipe.
Officials are looking for solutions and turn to you — one of their biggest pumper customers — for your thoughts. What do you tell them? If you’re Frank Bowen, of Bowen’s Septic and Environmental Services in Conyers, Georgia, you wrestle with the question that has been dogging you as some plants turn away your trucks and others jack up their prices.
Bowen was invited to a meeting of the Rockdale County Water and Sewage Authority to hear that monthly septic dumping in early 2016 more than quadrupled. If the pace continues, a plant operator said the county would blow out its budget for sludge treatment.
“It is something that needs to be dealt with, and I think we need to find the path forward that is equitable for the residents of Rockdale County,” said Ed Biskis, of ESG Operations, which maintains the county water and wastewater plants, “and for the vendors who are trying to provide that service to the residents who need their septic tanks pumped.”
As reported in the local Rockdale Citizen, officials around the table discussed ideas like requiring mandatory three- to five-year pumpouts to reduce the strength of the sludge taken from neglected septic tanks. They determined it would be hard to put that requirement in place and challenging to regulate required maintenance.
Bowen suggested a consumer education effort as a starting point.
“What is happening is that a lot of people who have been on public sewer their whole life are moving into Rockdale County. They flush every cotton-picking thing they can think of down garbage disposals,” Bowen said. “There have been times when we could literally walk on the sewage.”
I called Bowen and asked him to elaborate on his thoughts following the meeting and talk about his frustration over a scarcity of dumping options. He said the situation could threaten the livelihood of his company with 15 workers, as well as all the other pumping companies who rely on area treatment plants.
Maintenance is clearly a growing issue and one part of the problem, he explains. His technicians often encounter what he calls “dead tanks,” septic tanks overwhelmed by grease, trash that shouldn’t be flushed, and harsh cleaning products. The systems have been neglected for many years and are so packed full that workers use a mini-excavator bucket to start clearing the waste away before pumping.
The drivers try to educate homeowners about proper septic system care, and add notes to the invoices spelling out necessary lifestyle changes needed to correct a problem.
“It’s out of sight, out of mind. Once we pull out of the driveway, all that’s forgotten until it starts to back up in their house again,” he says. Those homeowners call after six months, angry that their lines have backed up again. “They’ll magically remember when you show them the notes on the invoice.”
While educating septic users is a great idea, Bowen implores treatment plants to set disposal prices that pay for their costs — and a little bit more — rather than threaten to restrict or ban pumpers from using these facilities. Banning septic sludge is failing to serve the 55 percent of county residents who utilize septic systems, he says.
COSTS ARE RISING
Currently Bowen pays $500 to dump a 3,500- to 4,000-gallon load at Rockville County. If the price has to rise to cover the treatment plant costs, so be it, he says.
“If it costs $600, go to $600. If it costs $700, go to $700. Give me some figures and let’s fix the problem,” he says. “Give me a place to dump and I’ll (pass the costs along to) the customer. You just tell me what it costs, give me a safe place to dump and we’ll keep rocking and rolling.”
Bowen didn’t get an answer to his question about cost, but he views the situation as an opportunity for a public treatment plant, or maybe it will fall to the private sector to step in and handle the load.
“Surely they can figure out how to design a treatment plant to handle the sewage,” he says.
Bowen doesn’t want to discount the impact raising dumping prices will have on his business. Constant increases have already taken their toll. He says the going rate for a pumpout is $375 in his area, which means he can take in $1,125 filling a truck in three stops. When he spends $500 to dump, $100 for fuel, about $275 for labor, the profit is down to $250, and out of that comes equipment wear and tear, office staff, insurance and advertising. The bottom line: It’s hard to break even.
“We don’t make money by pumping the tank,’’ he concludes. “Maintenance and repairs is where we make money.”
WE NEED ANSWERS
For pumpers to have a chance to maintain a thriving small business, they need to know their fixed costs, have a reliable outlet for disposal and then set their own prices to ensure a profit. Under the present circumstances, Bowen and other pumpers across the country are having a tough time plugging any of those facts and figures into a business plan.
For the good of the millions of homeowners who utilize septic systems and the technicians who keep them in tip-top shape, I hope clearer disposal answers are on the way.