Effort to Create a Michigan Sanitary Code Is Moving Slowly

It’s been more than a year since the attempt to create a statewide sanitary code failed in the Michigan Legislature, but the idea is not dead. It can happen under the right circumstances, says one observer of the state’s wastewater struggles. Michigan is the only state without a statewide code.

Late last year, a symposium in Traverse City — in the northwestern part of the state’s Lower Peninsula — assembled people to talk about the issue. Also at that time, a member of the Michigan Environmental Council, a coalition of groups interested in public policy, called for better rules for onsite systems and system inspections. In addition, commissioners for Oakland County, near Detroit, endorsed a resolution urging the Legislature to pass a statewide code.

People in Michigan can have a statewide code, and Ohio has already shown the way, says Dendra Best, executive director of the nonprofit WasteWater Education based in Traverse City. There were several attempts in its Legislature before Ohio achieved success, she says.

The Michigan bill that failed earlier would have required the state Department of Environmental Quality to develop rules for the siting and design of onsite systems, for effluent, for inspections and maintenance, and for the qualification of people managing and installing onsite systems. Every system would have had to be assessed at least every 10 years, but advanced treatment units would have had to be inspected at least every five years.

Opponents of the bill were loud and numerous. They objected to some provisions in the legislation, but opposition was focused on how the bill was created. That happened behind closed doors, say opponents, including some local health departments who say their concerns were ignored. The bill stalled in committee and died when the legislative session ended.

“How Ohio actually got to the point of passing (its law) was that everybody had something to complain about, but everybody felt their opinions had been taken into consideration. And everything was fair and affordable,” Best says.

Contrast that with the Michigan bill. There was no provision for low-interest loans or grants to help people afford the cost of upgrading or repairing onsite systems, she says. Upgrades must be affordable if we are to protect human health, Best says, and the law should not penalize people just because they can’t come up with the money for a better system. “You can’t have a piece of legislation that’s all stick and no carrot.”

Ohio took several years to slowly work through what should be in its code — sections about soils, local geology, installation, and training for installers and designers, she says. Ohio’s code, the first major revision since the 1970s, took effect in 2015.

Best says she applied for a grant that would pay for WasteWater Education to facilitate the process of writing a statewide code. Facilitation would happen through an online conferencing platform, which means people wouldn’t have to drive to the state capitol in Lansing to be part of the process. That’s especially important for people who live in the Upper Peninsula, far from Lansing, she says.

At the Traverse City symposium, two lines of thought remained. One says a statewide code is necessary to make sure the environment and public health are protected, and the other says no statewide code would allow enough adjustments to fit local soils and other conditions.

“But there is a way out of it if people will sit back, take a deep breath and do it right,” Best says.


Two counties each blocked the other’s attempt to change its time-of-sale onsite inspection program. Commissioners in Manistee County denied permission for nearby Kalkaska County to end its inspection program. Manistee’s approval was required under the rules of the district health department, which is composed of several area counties.

Kalkaska officials were unhappy. The Kalkaska County Board had approved Manistee County’s proposal to end some exemptions and change other rules in its own inspection program, reports the Record-Eagle of Traverse City. Kalkaska County commissioners were so unhappy that they held a second vote on the Manistee County changes, and this time denied them.

Questions arose about the legality of the second vote, but an attorney who researched the issue says it was legal.


The time-of-sale onsite inspection program in Isabella County may be paying off. During 2018, inspectors looked at 475 properties and found 66 in need of some kind of repair or overhaul. Of the 66, 19 were discharging untreated wastewater into streams, tiles or onto the ground, writes The Morning Sun based in Alma.

“I’m surprised by the number of illegal systems people are trying to put in,” Central Michigan District Health Department Environmental Health Supervisor Scott Jones told a committee assigned to track the inspection program. He says the number of failures, and the causes of failure, were not surprising.

He told the committee that testing on the North Branch Chippewa River found lower E. coli numbers than in prior years. While it is too early to rule out other causes, Jones says, the reduced bacteria count may indicate that the inspection program is having an effect.

Rhode Island

Portsmouth residents will have another chance at financing to close cesspools or upgrade onsite systems. Last December, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank announced a third round of funding for zero-interest loans for such work.

Residents may borrow up to $25,000 for their projects, and money may be used to cover both engineering and construction costs, reports the news website Patch. During the past three years, 850 people in the state have taken advantage of the program.


As part of its work to combat local water pollution, Alachua County recently turned its attention to nitrogen-reducing onsite systems. County commissioners said they wanted more information and asked staff of the county’s Environmental Protection Department to develop cost estimates for installing nitrogen-reducing systems in new residential developments, reports The Gainesville Sun.

“I just don’t know if this is going to have the impact that we’re wanting,” says Commissioner Ken Cornell. The real cause of pollution seems not to be onsite systems but agriculture, he says. County staff agree.


A meeting to talk about the problem of septic leachate in the Flathead Valley resulted in the formation of a committee to try to do something about it.

The committee will consist of biologists, tribal representatives and others, reports the Daily Inter Lake based in Kalispell. Through research and outreach, the committee will try to make the issue of septic leachate an important one for homeowners and governments.

“No one really knows how to deal with nonpoint source because it’s not coming out of a pipe directly in front of your eyes,” says Tom Bansak, assistant director for the Flathead Lake Biological Station.

Another task of the committee is to explore regulations such as the onsite inspection programs used in other parts of the country.


Grants are available to replace failing septic systems in the watersheds of Crane Creek and Lower James River. The size of each grant will depend on household income. Grants will cover 50% to 90% of costs, reports the Christian County Headliner News of Ozark, Missouri.


People living in the Attoyac Bayou watershed may be eligible for grants that pay for new septic systems. The watershed is polluted with E. coli coming in part from failing wastewater systems. Homes within 2,000 feet of an affected body of water will have priority. Only households with incomes at or less than 150% of the median household income will be eligible for grants, according to the Angelina & Neches River Authority.


A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decision that it cannot use the Clean Water Act to regulate pollution flowing through groundwater needs to be respected, a federal judge said recently as he dismissed a lawsuit seeking to regulate such pollution in the state.

Last fall, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a similar case from Hawaii where a group of organizations said the act should be used to stop pollution flowing through groundwater from deep injection wells operated by Maui County’s wastewater treatment plant.

The EPA had said that it cannot regulate pollution that starts at a point source and moves through groundwater. This is a change from its previous policy, writes Bloomberg Environment.

The Massachusetts case that Judge William G. Young ruled on involves a wastewater treatment system at the Wychmere Beach Club on Cape Cod. The state Department of Environmental Protection found that wastewater seeping through groundwater from the system was partly responsible for excess nitrogen in Wychmere Harbor, and the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation filed two lawsuits seeking to curb the pollution. One was based on the Clean Water Act, and the other on the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

After Young’s ruling, the Clean Water Act lawsuit is dead, but the other will continue.


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