Rules and Regs: Septic Code Bills Stalled in Michigan

Also in this month's regulations update, a California pumper is sentenced to a year in jail for illegal dumping and could face $400,000 in fines

Rules and Regs: Septic Code Bills Stalled in Michigan

In the spring, two bills were introduced into the Michigan Legislature with the intent of establishing a statewide code for onsite wastewater systems. There was a single committee hearing on April 11, and there has been no action since.

“There isn’t any movement, probably won’t be until after the midterm elections,” says Dendra Best, executive director of WasteWater Education, a nonprofit group based in Traverse City, Michigan. 

According to an analysis prepared by the House Fiscal Agency, the bills would:

  • Require the state Department of Environmental Quality to develop a statewide code that would set standards for siting and design of onsite systems, for effluent, for inspection and maintenance of onsite systems, and for the qualifications and continuing education of people managing onsite systems, among other things.
  • Allow local health departments to administer the code.
  • Forbid local governments from adopting point-of-sale ordinances that require an inspection of an onsite system when a property is sold.
  • Require the owner of a septic tank to have it assessed at least every 10 years by a local health department or a registered inspector or service provider.
  • Require alternative systems to be inspected by the state, local health department, or registered inspector at least once every five years.
  • Require all installations after Jan. 1, 2020 to be done with a permit from the state or local health department and using only products that have been registered with the DEQ for use in Michigan.
  • Establish a technical advisory committee of 16 people, including three from the onsite industry, to advise the DEQ on its rules.

WasteWater Education, which works to raise awareness of the link between water quality and wastewater management systems, hosted some online forums to discuss the proposed code.

“I guess the biggest complaint that came out was that the code imposed regulation without any discussion of how to implement the rules,” Best says. There was an absence of transparency when the bill was being drafted, and that left out the local health officials charged with implementing the rules, she adds.

The Ottawa County Health Department wrote a four-page position paper objecting to the proposed code. Among other points, the department says there is a lack of evidence showing need for the legislation, yet it would also limit the development potential of large portions of the county. (Ottawa County lies immediately west of Grand Rapids and includes a section of the Lake Michigan shore.)

The requirement for regular inspections would create tensions with citizens, and the proposed rules would add a significant burden to the work of local health departments as they track inspections and ensure compliance with the rules, the Ottawa County department writes. The department’s position paper also faults legislators for creating the bill quickly and without broad input from the public.

Pumper requested comment from Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, sponsor of the primary bill, but he did not respond by the deadline for this column.

The best solution would be to start over, Best says, and spend a couple of years refining the details as Ohio did. Although standardization is a good idea, she says, a one-size-fits-all code would not work well in Michigan because it has several geologically distinct areas that need to be treated individually. For example, there is flat and fertile farmland around Saginaw Bay next to Michigan’s thumb, and there is the hilly Upper Peninsula where bedrock may be covered by a thin layer of soil.

The condition of the state’s septic systems has been the focus of more than one study in recent years. In mid-September, the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network released an analysis saying failing onsite systems in five counties around the bay may be a significant cause of water-quality problems in the bay. The nonprofit group advocates for improved water quality in the bay and by extension in the rivers and streams that feed it. The analysis was done by a consulting firm and guided by representatives from the watershed network and eight other conservation and government organizations.

Between 6,000 and 15,000 onsite systems are likely failing, according to a press release from the watershed network. That implies a release of as much as 1.26 billion gallons of untreated wastewater every year. But the release also doesn’t blame onsite technology so much as fault system owners. “When properly designed, sited, installed and maintained, septic systems provide cost-effective and environmentally safe disposal of wastewater. Similar to other household infrastructure, like a furnace or roof, septic systems have an expected service life and require periodic maintenance,” reads the release.

Florida County Bans Installation of Standard Septic Systems Near Lagoon

Brevard County commissioners voted to overhaul the county’s onsite wastewater rules in order to reduce pollution of the Indian River Lagoon. The new rules ban installation of standard septic systems on the county’s barrier islands and on mainland areas within 200 feet of the lagoon.

The lagoon stretches for about 50 miles along Florida’s east coast, and Brevard County contains its upstream end just east of Orlando.

Only new system installations are affected. People who have septic systems already would not be required to upgrade them to nitrogen-reducing units.

Commissioners say they would revisit the ordinance no later than August 2020 when additional research on the effects of septic tanks should be complete.

A special half-percent sales tax implemented for lagoon restoration will be used to remove or retrofit about 3,700 septic systems. The estimated cost is $68 million. That won’t cover all septics. The county’s natural resources director says there are about 15,000 septic systems within 165 feet of the lagoon. There is also a problem at the state level, she says, because the health department issues permits for about 800 septic systems annually.

Red Tide Algae Issues Continue in Florida

Water quality has become an issue in the Florida race for U.S. Senate where incumbent Bill Nelson is facing Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott blames Nelson for water-quality problems, saying he failed to obtain more federal funding to combat algae blooms.

“The algae problem is 100 percent tied to the fact that Sen. Nelson does a campaign ad in 1990 saying he’s going to deal with algae, and now, how many years later he’s never done anything,” Scott says, according to television station WINK in Fort Myers.

Nelson says Scott is to blame because he gutted environmental regulations.

“He has systematically during his time as governor … disassembled the environmental agencies of this state,” Nelson says. “He has drained the water management districts of funding.”

Funds Available to Upgrade Onsite Systems Near Florida’s Springs

Florida is now providing funds to upgrade onsite systems located near its springs. Nitrogen pollution is seeping through the ground and emerging in springs where it fuels algae blooms.

As many as 200,000 homeowners may be eligible for the payments of up to $10,000 for new systems. Money is paid directly to installers.

Drew Bartlett, deputy secretary at the state Department of Environmental Protection, says it is unclear how much nitrogen-reducing systems will cost, according to the Orlando Sentinel, but the cost may drop as systems become more available. 

California Man Sentenced to a Year in Jail for Illegal Dumping

A man accused of illegally dumping septage was sentenced in September to a year in county jail and may pay up to $400,000 in fines.

Carlos Velarde Chavez, 64, owner of Carlos’ Petaluma Septic Services, pleaded no contest in August to one felony count of theft of utility services and one misdemeanor count of advertising construction work without a proper license, according to The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa. Chavez was originally charged in the spring with two felonies and 22 misdemeanors.

Investigators found Chavez while checking complaints of septic tank grit blocking city sewer pipes. Police say he was emptying his 2,800-gallon truck about six days each week into a pipe installed in the backyard of his home and connected to municipal sewer pipes.

Chavez must pay a $30,700 penalty. A hearing in late October will determine how much more he will pay in damages to the municipalities whose pipes he used. Santa Rosa claims he cost the city $353,977, while Rohnert Park says it is owed $15,576.

“It’s a fairly significant case in that it’s large fines, and we did proceed with a felony for the reason that it caused significant harm to the sewer,” says Scott Jamar, chief deputy district attorney. “Cities have to pay for that real cost, and it’s thievery, and it has environmental connotations if it’s not disposed of appropriately, given that volume.”

Cape Cod Seeks Advanced Onsite Systems Near Oyster Pond

The Falmouth Water Quality Management Committee hopes to submit a wastewater management implementation plan for Oyster Pond to the state ahead of its December 2019 deadline.

The pond, an estuary on the southern side of Cape Cod, is troubled by nitrogen pollution, and the plan would require the installation of advanced technology onsite systems at homes in the pond’s watershed. At a meeting, the committee discussed connecting homes to a sewer system, but one committee member says onsite technology could be used before the town’s next opportunity to expand municipal sewer.

Another member of the committee says older onsite systems permitted by the state are not equal to the need because they meet a nitrogen standard of 19 mg/L. What is needed for the pond is a concentration of no more than 10 mg/L or removal of 75 percent of nitrogen, according to the Falmouth Enterprise.


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