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March 21, 2002

Septic Systems: What Goes Down Can Come Up

By Stuart Lieberman, Esq
Realty Times

Many Americans rely on septic systems for sanitary waste treatment. Public sanitary systems are simply not available everywhere, which leaves homeowners with few options: a septic system being the most common.

The benefit of a septic system is that homeowners need not pay monthly fees for wastewater treatment. The downside is that you are on your own: if your system fails, you need to promptly fix it. Unless, that is, you live very close to a local diner or gas station.

When systems fail, they can become a real pain to your senses. Waste that should be in the ground can start to float up. The ground can take on a spongy appearance. In real bad cases, waste becomes visually apparent. And of course the smell is horrible.

Failing systems can do more than simply attack one's senses. They can also make people and wildlife, and in general our environment, ill. Nearby drinking water supplies risk contamination, which can result in all kinds of sickness. Streams and other nearby surface water can become polluted, altering the water chemistry and affecting aquatic vegetation and marine species.

Sometimes there are large scale failures. For example, some subdivisions have contained homes with defectively constructed systems that were all built at the same time. Consequently, they all started to fail at the same time. Large scale failures have created public health hazards warranting emergency measures. If you own a septic system, it is your moral and legal obligation to maintain it in working order. Regular maintenance, including pumpouts, must be adhered to . If you suspect a problem, you cannot ignore it and hope it will go away. It will probably just become worse.

In January 1998, the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a report that analyzed municipal pollution prevention practices concerning, among other things, septic system management. The report found that very few municipalities have adequate septic management programs and recommended the creation of "septic utilities."

According to the NRDC, septic utilities can be created in any local government and can finance septic management by collecting dedicated fees. As the NRDC sees it: "The advantages of a septic utility are that it can inspect septic systems regularly, arrange for pumpouts on an appropriate schedule, arrange for repairs of failing systems, collect fees from septic system owners to cover the cost of these services, and establish and enforce any other necessary septic systems regulations."

While I hate bigger government, I agree with the NRDC's suggestion that municipalities and other local governments consider the creation of septic utilities. They will help ensure that the job gets done. Systems will be regularly inspected and maintained and we will all be better off.

People connected to public sewers pay a small monthly fee to ensure that their waste is safely treated. Why not charge a small fee to ensure that all septic systems are maintained in safe, functioning order? This makes a lot of sense and I think the NRDC has the right idea.