Why Can’t I Just Run My Sewer Into the River?

Crazy homeowner questions, technology advances and the need for better consumer education create challenges for onsite wastewater leaders in Kentucky.

Why Can’t I Just Run My Sewer Into the River?

During a site evaluation, Charles Ward, environmental health program manager for the Oldham County Health Department in Kentucky, confers with installer Cliff Fendley of W.C. Fendley Backhoe Service. (Photo courtesy of Charles Ward)

Name and title or job description: Charles W. Ward IV, environmental health program manager

Business name and location: Oldham County Health Department, La Grange, Kentucky

Age: 33

Years in the industry: 5.5

Association involvement: Kentucky Onsite Wastewater Association president

Benefits of belonging to the association: The networking is very helpful. For me, I like being able to call other environmentalists in my state and ask them questions or receive feedback on alternative methods to solve a potential issue.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: Communication between the association and installers is sometimes difficult, letting them know about upcoming training classes or any changes to the onsite sewage disposal systems regulations. Not everyone uses email and calling several hundred installers by phone is not very efficient.

Our crew includes:

Teresa Gamsky, director of public health

Todd LaFollette, environmental director

Kathy Fowler, health environmentalist

Carla Petrzilka, senior support services associate

Typical day on the job: My day begins in the office, answering phone calls or assisting county residents that come to the health department looking for information related to site evaluations or existing septic systems. Then after 11 a.m., it’s out into the field to perform site evaluations on new residential and commercial properties, do final inspections on new installed septic systems, or evaluate an existing septic system that may be experiencing a surface failure.

Helping hands - Indispensable crew member: LaFollette was my mentor in all things health department-related. With a biology degree and a few college courses in environmental science, I was rather ignorant in the field of environmental health. Once hired, there are several training sessions one must attend on the state level to receive full certification. LaFollette spent several months with me before these training sessions, letting me shadow him on site evaluations. He instructed me on what to look for in soil characteristics, evaluating site limitations and understanding septic standards. This mentoring gave me such a head start in my career that when it came time for me to go to the state for training, I was able to understand and follow all the information presented. It really helped me get ahead in the onsite program. Still today if I have any questions on specific sites, LaFollette remains a valuable asset.

The job I’ll never forget: Going out for a final inspection on a job located in Crestwood, I saw what looked like a dried sea sponge that would have been used to wipe the grout off the bricks being laid around the house. Upon further examination by kicking it with my foot, it turned out to be a rather hard rock. I used my rock hammer to pry the object from the ground and rinsed it off with water. What I had found was a coral fossil. I sent pictures to the University of Kentucky for identification, and the fossil turned out to be 443 to 450 million years old.

My favorite piece of equipment: Having a field job is great and getting dirty is part of the job, but coming back to my office and typing my paperwork on a computer makes my job so much easier. It used to be that all paperwork was done by filling out pre-printed forms by hand. This meant that if you had poor handwriting or made a mistake, you would have to rewrite the entire form. Now I can scan a document, place text anywhere on that document, and it’s legible, editable, and electronically stored and delivered to whomever may desire a copy.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: Groundwater infiltrating a lateral field is always a major concern I have on a site with wet-weather springs. A septic system had a premature failure due to a spring that followed around the septic tank and down to the lateral field. The installer came up with the solution of excavating around the septic tank, placing corrugated pipe around the bottom, backfilling with some small rock, and running a daylight drain down and away from the lateral field. The diverting of the groundwater and allowing it to surface beyond the lateral field ultimately corrected the issue.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: Living in Oldham County, the Ohio River borders us to the north. I was once asked, “Why can’t I just run my sewer into the river?”

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: There used to be a reduction in the amount of lateral footage required if there was an advanced treatment unit (aerobic digestion) used in the septic system. I would like to see some form of that reduction reinstated as an incentive for property owners to invest in better technology for effluent improvement.

Best piece of small-business advice I’ve heard: “You can either ask for permission or beg for forgiveness.” This is what I tell people when they ask me whether or not they have to get permits or have certified installers perform the work needed to be done because you can either ask and do it right or ignore the regulations and face the consequences.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: Probably be working in another field of public service. I have always gained more satisfaction from helping others in my community than anything else.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: Education has become a major component of my career. There are so many homeowners who move from the neighboring city to our county and have no idea what onsite wastewater disposal means because their city had a sewer system. To them, it was some form of magic — down the drain and away it all went. I have been partners with a few watershed groups that offer instructional classes to the general public to inform them about protecting the waterways in their neighborhoods. I would like to see new homeowners who are either building or moving into a residence on septic have some form of education provided to them so they can understand the importance of onsite wastewater disposal.


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