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Health department expresses concerns of possible septic systems inspections | News, Sports, Jobs

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News Photo by Mike Gonzalez
Tim Brown, an environmental health worker with District Health Department No. 4, digs dirt out of the topsoil near the Alpena health department office on Tuesday. Environment officials use telescoping auger kits to grab dirt samples for contaminant testing.

ALPENA — In late April 2023, Michigan lawmakers introduced legislation that would require inspection of residential septic systems every five years.

House Bills 4479 and 4480, along with Senate Bills 299 and 300, are still awaiting action as the House Bills were referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism, and Outdoor Recreation, and the Senate Bills to the Committee on Energy and Environment, and no further steps have been made since its introductions.

The legislation has stood still for about one year, but it can still gain traction and pass, meaning state standards for new and existing septic systems would require inspections at the time of sale for all counties, which local health department officials continue to worry as it could become problematic very quickly.

Kevin Prevost, District Health Department No. 4 environmental health director, said for Northeast Michigan, this would prove nearly impossible for the department as there are no records that show every individual septic system in the four counties.

“The only thing we can do is look at our records and say, ‘yeah, we have, I don’t know, 50,000 sewage systems,’ but what about the ones we don’t know about?” Prevost said. “There are systems out there that we don’t know about and the way we find out about them is either the public tells us or people want to remodel, which triggers an opportunity to look at it.

“If you take 50,000 systems in a four-county area – and that’s a conservative estimate – that’s still 10,000 inspections per year,” Prevost continued. “That’s about 800 per month and if you split it four ways, it’s 200 per month. We’d need probably anywhere from 12 to 16 more sanitarians and that’s figuring we can do two to three inspections per day in each county, which I don’t even know if that’s possible.”

Prevost said new or replaced septic systems for residential homes are checked thoroughly and must meet permit standards that the Health Department has before being given a permit to begin functions.

He said the Health Department’s codes are specifically designed to fit the counties’ circumstances, such as the proximity to Lake Huron, and that the codes’ standards are especially high because of the amount of limestone in the soil.

“In my career, I’ve only seen one direct contamination of a water supply by a sewage system and that was in an area where they had a lot of cracked fractured limestone,” Prevost said. “Over the years in this department, we started focusing more and more on really taking a look at the circumstances on site and if there’s enough protection to put a system there and still protect the groundwater.”

According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy, about 10%, or 130,000 septic systems in Michigan, are failing and still operating. Prevost said that within the past five years, District Health Department No. 4 has never exceeded 3% of septic system failures.

Prevost said that in other areas of Michigan, septic systems may pose a problem, but he believes that issues such as algal blooms, which come from nutrients such as nitrates, stem from water runoff of lawn fertilizer.

“The thing that nobody wants to talk about is the fertilized lawns that go right to the edge of the water and then runoff,” Prevost said. “They do it every single year, but nobody wants to tell people that there should be a buffer zone between water sources and the lawn where you don’t fertilize. They like to point fingers at the sewage system because every homeowner thinks it’s pretty gross. Yeah, they’re designed to not be pleasant, but they’re super crucial and we push them as far away from the lake as possible.”

In a previous story by The News, four officials from different health and environmental organizations, including Prevost, came together on Feb. 21 for a two-hour discussion on the challenges they face to keep water around Northeast Michigan safe and how the public can help.

The roundtable participants explained that anything touching water has the potential for its chemicals or materials to stay in the liquid and move to storm drains and anywhere else the water goes.

Many of those issues are the consequence of human actions. Something as simple as fertilizing the lawn may create a negative impact if too much is used and rain runoff picks up some of the manure, the roundtable participants said.

“My takeaway is let’s just be practical and look at the bigger issues first,” Prevost said.

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