Indiana’s LaPorte County stands alone in the state in requiring repair or replacement of failing systems at home sales; works to build consensus with installers and real estate interests.
Nestled along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, La Porte County is the first in Indiana to enact an official point-of-sale property transfer ordinance requiring that all septic systems be inspected by certified members of the Indiana Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association (IOWPA) and then repaired or replaced if necessary.
The primary push for the regulations came from Amanda Lahners, environmental health and food supervisor, La Porte County Health Department. She says that shepherding the concept to official status was a delicate balancing act that required the support of legislators, Realtors and the expertise of IOWPA members. The point-of-sale requirement has been on the books for a year, and Lahners explains how it came about and how it’s been accepted:
Pumper: You’ve described yourself as a “septic nerd.” What do you find interesting about this field?
Lahners: It’s just so much more than digging a hole in the ground. I have a degree in biology, but septic relies on biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. I just love the complexity of the process.
Pumper: How common are septic systems in the county and how well are they maintained?
Lahners: We have 111,000 people in the county and other than a few larger centers like Michigan City, they’re all on septics — about 60 percent of the county. The documentation on these septic systems isn’t very strong. Many of them are between 20 and 60 years old, but we’re not sure what shape they’re in.
Pumper: What was the reason for introducing Ordinance No. 2016-02?
Lahners: There were several reasons. The first was environmental. Some voluntary inspections were taking place, but often the inspectors weren’t pumping the tanks, checking the condition of the construction of the tanks or seeing what was below the surface. The county sits on two major watersheds, Lake Michigan and the Kankakee River, so if there were any problems with improperly functioning septic tanks, waste would eventually drain through the groundwater to one or the other. It was a good way for us to build better records of the county’s septic systems and what condition they were in. It would also protect new homeowners by letting buyers know exactly what they were purchasing. Some people moving here from the city aren’t even aware that they have a septic system, let alone that it should be inspected.
Pumper: How was IOWPA’s septic inspector certification program important to the ordinance?
Lahners: IOWPA began offering an inspector certification program for septic systems in 2013, but typically only offers the course once a year. I worked with IOWPA to bring the three-day training course to La Porte County to get local companies certified and ready for when the ordinance went into effect. Many local IOWPA members wanted to become certified for septic inspections. That put the last piece in place for going forward with the new ordinance.
Pumper: How was the ordinance designed to work?
Lahners: IOWPA has developed a detailed 12-page inspection report form for septic systems that ensures every inspection is on the same page. Once an IOWPA-certified inspector completes the report, they send that report to us. Based on that information, we would either certify the system as having passed, or issue a repair or replace order if it failed.
Pumper: Were there any roadblocks to getting the new ordinance passed?
Lahners: We’re required to conduct three public readings of the ordinance before it can be signed off. Some legislators were slow to warm up to the idea. We also had some initial pushback from the Realtors’ groups we met with, because they were unhappy with the idea that the ordinance would hold up a sale. The ordinance covered both wells and septic systems. Our compromise was that if the inspectors found anything wrong with either system, the sale could still proceed. Based on the inspection report, we either issue a certificate that says the system is compliant or not compliant, but the new owner would be required to do any work under a repair order within a certain time frame.
Some of the Realtors thought it was a cash grab on our part, but we explained we receive no revenue from the inspection. The Realtor groups also wanted us to set a fixed price for an IOWPA inspection, but we said that we had no right to tell a private contractor what they should charge for their time any more than we could tell a restaurant owner how much to charge for a cheeseburger. We tell homeowners that they should compare quotes for septic inspections.
Pumper: Have you had any growing pains during the first year of the ordinance?
Lahners: Initially we were issuing orders for failed systems and also for missing components including baffles, tank risers and gas deflectors. Inspectors were telling clients and Realtors that everything was fine and then we might still issue orders for those (components). The original intent of the ordinance was to identify failing septics, so last October we met with Realtors to iron out these details. I developed a summary page to accompany the 12-page IOWPA inspection report, which identifies what has to be fixed, such as failed systems or cracked tanks, and also what is recommended for the proper functioning of the system. A missing baffle is now identified as an item that is highly recommended for repair, but not required for compliance.
We’ve also had some homeowners decide they didn’t want to sell their homes after their septic system failed an inspection. That doesn’t change the fact that they have a nasty pool of sewage in their yard — they still have to fix it.
Pumper: Can you share any statistics about inspections since the ordinance took effect?
Lahners: As of March 31, 2017, we have seen 499 septic systems inspected. We’ve had 34 systems failed and had 28 tanks and five distribution boxes replaced. We’ve closed four cesspools, one pipe going straight out to the lake, eight graywater systems used for a washing machine or sink, and two systems where washing machines were discharging straight to the ground.
Pumper: Has the ordinance attracted any attention in the rest of the state?
Lahners: I’ve had other counties contact me to see how they could enact a similar ordinance and I’ve given presentations on that. What’s particularly important to them is how we included stakeholders in developing the ordinance, so that everyone could feel they had some influence on the result.