Tag: Michigan septic summit

Michigan Courts Can Enforce a Township’s Responsibility to Remedy Widespread Septic System Failures

Worth Township photo courtesy of the Times Herald

By Janet Meissner Pritchard, FLOW interim legal director

Whose job is it to stop widespread pollution from failing septic systems?

Michigan remains the only state without statewide regulations governing the inspection of septic systems, leaving the job of protecting waters from septic systems to local governments. A 2012 decision of the Michigan Supreme Court makes clear that, in the face of widespread septic system failures in a region, Michigan courts can nevertheless step in to require a local government to comply with its duty to protect the waters of the state from sewage contamination when the local government has failed to do so.

In DEQ v. Worth Township, the Court held that a municipality can be held liable for, and is required to prevent, sewage discharge that originates within its borders, even when the discharge is from private septic systems. In this case, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)—now called the Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment (EGLE)—filed suit against Worth Township under Part 31 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), which provides for water resources protection. The Township is located in Sanilac County, just north of Sarnia in the thumb of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

Worth Township did not have a municipal sewerage system. Instead, private septic systems handled sewage waste. Surveys of water quality conducted by DEQ in 2003, 2006, and 2008 revealed and made known to the Township that surface waters were contaminated with both fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria from raw sewage of human origin, and that conditions were progressively worsening.

The source of the contamination was due to the widespread failure of old, undersized septic systems on private properties located within the Township along the shore of Lake Huron. Oversaturated drain fields caused raw sewage to be directed into ditches and streams leading into the lake. As a result of this contamination, this section of Lake Huron was included in Michigan’s list of impaired waters. 

Based on the initial testing done by DEQ, the state agency and the Township in 2004 entered into an agreement wherein the Township agreed to construct a municipal sewerage system by 2008. The Township did not construct such a system, citing lack of funds. DEQ filed suit, seeking injunctive relief under part 31 of NREPA, MCL 324.3101 et seq. to compel the Township to take measures to prevent the discharge of raw sewage into the waters of the state. The trial court found in favor of DEQ and ordered the Township to pay a $60,000 fine and attorney fees and to take corrective measures.

While the order did not specifically require the Township to install a municipal sewerage system to remedy the widespread failure of private septic systems, the parties agreed that the most practical and comprehensive method for restraining the discharge would be to construct a sewerage system. The Court of Appeals reversed the order, holding that a municipality cannot be required to prevent the discharge of sewage from private properties. DEQ, in turn, appealed to Michigan’s Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court ruled that a municipality can be required to prevent the discharge of raw sewage that originates from within its borders, even when that sewage is discharged by private parties onto private property, and not by the municipality itself. The Court’s reasoning turned on its interpretation of MCL 324.3109, which sets forth the statutory framework regarding violations of NREPA involving unlawful discharges into state waters. MCL324.3109(2) provides specific language with regard to violations by governmental entities: “discharge of any raw sewage … directly or indirectly, into any of the waters of the state shall be considered prima facie evidence of a violation of this part by the municipality in which the discharge originated unless the discharge is permitted by an order or rule of [DEQ].”

The Court reasoned that the phrase “shall be considered prima facie evidence of a violation of this part by the municipality in which the discharge originated” is at the core of the dispute. The Court of Appeals had interpreted this phrase to mean that, when raw sewage originating within the municipality’s borders is discharged into state waters, this statutory language creates a rebuttable presumption that the municipality itself discharged the sewage and, if the municipality proves that it did not cause the discharge, it avoids responsibility.

But, applying several standard rules of statutory interpretation, the Supreme Court rejected the Appellate Court’s reasoning and instead determined that the Legislature intended to place responsibility for a discharge of raw sewage on the municipality in which the discharge originated and to give that municipality the burden of showing that the discharged raw sewage does not rise to the “is or may become injurious” standard in order to avoid being subject to penalties or orders for injunctive relief, as provided for in MCL 324.3115.    

The Worth case not only clarifies that Michigan law places responsibility for sewage discharges into state waters on local municipalities, it also demonstrates that Michigan courts are able and willing to order injunctive relief to enforce the duty of a municipality to prevent such discharges. 

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Worth, in 2014 the Michigan legislature modified MCL 324.3109 to provide that a municipality is not liable for sewage discharge where the discharge is from three or fewer private septic systems. While this amendment limits a municipality’s strict liability where the problem emanates from just a few septic systems, it does nothing to overrule the reasoning of the Court in Worth or the application of the Court’s holding in cases where the failure of septic systems is widespread, as was the situation in Worth Township. 

Worth is not the only Michigan township to experience widespread failure of septic systems.  As highlighted at the Michigan Septic Summit convened by FLOW in November 2019, an estimated 130,000 septic systems are leaking E. coli and other pollutants into Michigan groundwater, lakes, and streams. The Worth case clarifies that municipalities have a legal duty to take corrective measures to prevent these discharges but, in fact, some local governments are weakening their oversight of septic systems rather than strengthening them.  

Meanwhile, in Worth Township, following the Court’s order, the Township built a municipal sewerage system. By October 2019, the system was ready for residents throughout the Township to hook up to the new system.  

As argued by many participants at FLOW’s septic summit, the state legislature should enact a statewide sanitary code to protect the paramount public interest in groundwater and surface waters, setting environmentally protective standards for inspection and maintenance of on-site sewage (septic) systems, as every other state has done. The Worth case demonstrates, however, that even in the absence of state law authorizing EGLE to enforce state standards for septic systems, the regulatory agency can turn to state courts to enforce municipalities’ responsibilities to protect against the discharge of human sewage to state waters under existing state law, just as DEQ did in Worth.

The same kind of claims can also be brought against municipalities by private citizens or organizations, through a private right of action under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). The Attorney General could also prosecute a claim of public nuisance against a responsible municipality, as referenced in MCL 324.3109(6). 

In some cases, stronger oversight and maintenance of existing private septic systems will be sufficient to remedy the problem. But sometimes, particularly in regions becoming more densely populated, drain fields to which private septic systems direct sewage waste can become oversaturated and contaminate state waters. In such cases, as in Worth Township, building a municipal sewerage system may be the most practical and comprehensive method for restraining the discharge. Building a municipal sewerage system is a substantial and expensive undertaking. To help financially constrained municipalities undertake such remedies, Michigan must find ways to fill its funding shortfall to meet the state’s water infrastructure needs. An amount of between $800 million to $1 billion is needed each year to address the state’s water infrastructure needs.

Different solutions may be required for different circumstances. Solutions could include a strong septic system ordinance or code, more frequent and stricter inspections of private septic systems, or the installation of a new sewerage system. But the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Worth makes one thing clear: If municipalities do not step up to address failing septic systems, they might have to answer for it in court.

Chronicling FLOW’s Accomplishments in 2019

Powered by our supporters, FLOW had quite a year in 2019.

Our legal advocacy work to restore the rule of law made a big impact at the state level. Michigan’s new Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a public trust lawsuit on June 27 to revoke the 1953 easement that conditionally authorizes Enbridge to operate its 66-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.

“This is a watershed moment in the battle to decommission Line 5, prevent a catastrophic oil spill, and protect the Great Lakes, an economic engine for our state and the source of drinking water for millions,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood about Nessel’s bold legal action.

On December 3, the Michigan Court of Appeals nullified a lower court order that would have allowed the bottled water giant Nestlé to build an industrial booster pump facility to remove millions of gallons of groundwater per year from Osceola Township. The court affirmed that bottled water is neither an “essential public service” nor a “public water supply”.

“Bottled water diversion and export operations can no longer be paraded as public,” said FLOW founder and president Jim Olson. “The purpose of the bottled water industry has only one purpose—maximum profit off the sale of packaged public water.”

Meanwhile, a bill has been introduced in Lansing by Rep. Yousef Rabhi that extends public trust protection to groundwater and mandates that the state protect that water.

Our work has had a national impact as well. In February, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed that we have a public trust right to walk the Great Lakes shorelines below the natural high water mark of private property, when it declined to hear an Indiana case filed by riparian land owners. Jim Olson was involved in the original case.

 

Education and protective policy

FLOW launched several education campaigns in 2019 including a Groundwater Awareness Week, what it is and why it matters; the Michigan Septic Summit on Nov. 6 that convened parties from public health officials to realtors to watershed nonprofits to generate new partnerships and build political will to pass a statewide septic code; an environmental economics project and four policy briefs by former FLOW board chair Skip Pruss about the benefits of government regulation to protect the environment and public health; and a Public Trust month in July that included a “Great Lakes Passport” and a month-long series of videos that featured the public answering the question: “Who owns the Great Lakes?”.

We advocated for several protective policies in 2019, including a two-pronged proposal to the International Joint Commission (IJC) for an emergency pilot study and urgent action to address the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes, the inclusion of funding for clean water in Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s budget, and the need for statewide requirements for septic system inspection, particularly given that Michigan is the only state in the nation without any statewide septic code.

The International Joint Commission, which held a public hearing in Traverse City on July 24, also appointed FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood to its Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with people from all across the Great Lakes Basin to help improve protection of these public trust waters,” Kirkwood said. “Our challenge in this new century, then, is to break the constant cycle of ruin and recovery, and replace it with sustained protection and prosperity. This is critical in the context of the climate crisis where we are testing the capacity of our ecosystems to rebound.”

FLOW senior policy advisor Dave Dempsey was also invited to present at the Great Lakes Funders Conference in Cleveland in late October.

 

Celebrating water

FLOW held several events in 2019 to recognize the importance of inspiring citizens viscerally and emotionally (as well as cerebrally) to protect the Great Lakes. We launched our “Art Meets Water” webpage to highlight examples of the heartfelt creativity that inspires us to fight for our public waters. “We all know that water is the source of the future,” says Leelanau County writer Anne-Marie Oomen. “But it’s also a part of our souls and our spirits.”

On June 28, cellist Crispin Campbell and “Mad Angler” poet Mike Delp performed at our “In Praise of Water” benefit for FLOW at the Cathedral Barn at Historic Barns Park in Traverse City. “The Mad Angler finds himself upset about the state of affairs that Michigan rivers find themselves in,” said Delp. “When you hear that deep sound coming out of the cello, that’s the heart of where this comes from… I’m right down inside that cello.”

On July 24, Oomen and the Beach Bards storytellers’ troupe presented, “Love Letters to the Lakes” (which she had solicited from writers across Michigan) in a live reading to the International Joint Commission, in hopes that deeply personal prose would impact public policy to protect the Great Lakes. And on October 11, Higher Art Gallery in Traverse City held “Artists for FLOW,” inviting local artists to share water-inspired works for a show that benefits our fight to protect that water.

After all, protecting the Great Lakes is “A Matter of the Heart” writes FLOW supporter Jerry Beasley:

“What I have learned, and what I believe in the most elemental way, is that our first and most basic relationship with water is anchored in love. In the absence of love, there is the great risk of indifference and failure to protect this resource that, under the Public Trust Doctrine, belongs to us all and is essential to life. If the heart is not engaged, the waters will not be saved. So, while we marshal facts and organize and encourage activism, let us remember to acknowledge the power of our affections and make them a guiding principle in all that we do.”

Where Does Michigan Go from Here on Leaking Septic Systems?

FLOW’s Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey facilitates the Michigan Septic Summit’s closing panel discussing, Where Do We Go from Here? Photo by Rick Kane

FLOW and partners look to grow awareness, pass statewide code

By Dave Dempsey

Can Michigan’s governance system succeed in solving one of our state’s worst water pollution problems?

That’s the key question in the wake of FLOW’s Michigan Septic Summit in Traverse City on November 6. Attended by more than 150 people representing diverse points of view, the summit demonstrated that there is widespread interest in addressing a problem that is putting our waters and human health at risk.

That problem—actually a challenge that has faced Michigan for decades—is the lack of a uniform state sanitary code to protect our rivers, lakes, and groundwater from pollution from failing septic systems. An estimated 10%, or 130,000, of Michigan’s septic systems are failing. Except for a handful or so of counties, townships, and villages that have passed their own ordinances, there are no standard requirements for inspection and proper maintenance of septic systems. Michigan is the only state that lacks statewide requirements. It is a glaring and unacceptable gap in Michigan’s water-protection laws.

The Septic Summit’s presentations, panel discussions, and audience questions addressed much of the detail that must be resolved in order to enact such a statewide code.  Should inspections be required when property is sold or on a routine basis, perhaps every five or 10 years? How should a “failing” system be defined? What should be required if a system is found to be failing? What government agencies should be charged with enforcing a code, and how will they be funded? How can property owners be assisted in paying for expensive system repair or replacement? These are just a few of the knotty problems.

State political attention to the absence of a Michigan uniform sanitary code is nothing new. In 2004, as part of a special message on water issues she transmitted to the Legislature, former Governor Jennifer Granholm called for such a code. The then-Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was asked to provide leadership in developing a code and to assemble a task force to formulate potential legislation.

Twenty-six organizations representing a variety of interests involving the septic waste problem were invited to name a representative to serve on the task force. But the work group ultimately could not agree on a solution. Legislators have proposed laws to cure the problem since then, but none has gained traction—again because of lack of consensus on how to act, if at all.

It’s a tricky governance problem. A large number of interests are concerned about both the problem and how a solution would affect them. In addition to private property owners who rely on septic systems, environmental groups, several state agencies, local health departments and environmental health administrators, local government officials, homebuilders, realtors, scientists, septic system waste haulers, and others all need to come to the table.

Doing so is an imperative. Presenters at last week’s Septic Summit underscored how failing systems are contaminating groundwater and surface water with microorganisms that sicken those who drink from or swim in the affected waters.  Because households with septic systems use the same household hazardous materials that other households do, toxic contaminants are also entering waters from failing systems.

There is hope, however. The summit underscored a growing resolve in the state to do something meaningful about septic system pollution. Historically, when Michigan’s various interests have come together in good faith to solve an environmental problem, they have succeeded. FLOW will be following up with Septic Summit attendees to share information, support educational efforts elsewhere in Michigan, and work with allies to craft a state legislative solution.

It will no doubt take time to reach consensus on what needs to be done, but there is no doubt something needs to be done. For Michigan’s environment and human health, we cannot afford further inaction on a statewide uniform sanitary code.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy adviser.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Michigan Septic Summit Draws Packed Crowd to Traverse City

Above: Nature Change’s Joe VanderMeulen and FLOW’s Liz Kirkwood welcome attendees to the Michigan Septic Summit on Nov. 6, 2019, at Northwestern Michigan College’s Hagerty Center in Traverse City. All photos by Rick Kane.


We really didn’t know what the level of public interest would be when FLOW started working with Joe VanderMeulen of Nature Change—as well as a variety of expert presenters, co-sponsors, and community partners—to develop a day-long summit devoted to Michigan’s septic dilemma.

Would people show up for a whole day to talk about old and failing septic systems? And sit still through an intestinal-bacteria presentation during lunch? Was our estimate of 150 registrants realistic?

Those questions were answered with a resounding “yes” on Wednesday, at our first-ever Michigan Septic Summit, which overflowed with more than 160 attendees and interest in:

  • Exploring the latest septic system research on the human health and environmental risks,
  • Learning about local and regional programs and regulations adopted in response to surface water and groundwater quality threats, and
  • Fostering dialogue toward more effective and geographically extensive efforts to reduce risks from septic system waste.

More than 160 people from around Michigan turned out and tuned in to presentations, panel discussions, and peer-to-peer conversations around regulating Michigan’s septic waste.

 

On the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that delved into septic tanks, Michiganders demonstrated we care about public health and water that’s safe for drinking, bathing, swimming, fishing, boating, and beachcombing. We care about finding equitable solutions to one of humankind’s oldest problems in communal living—disposing of human waste safely in Michigan, the only state that lacks a uniform sanitary code requiring periodic inspection and maintenance of septic systems—even though 30% of Michiganders rely on such systems.

The results of unregulated septic waste are devastating to Michigan surface water and groundwater. An estimated 130,000 septic systems in the state are failing, releasing 5.2 billion gallons of sewage annually into Michigan waters. Numerous Michigan rivers and lakes have detectable levels of fecal bacteria. Groundwater, too, is contaminated by septic wastes. And conventional household waste isn’t the only thing polluting our waters. Emerging contaminants like pharmaceutical residues and endocrine disruptors are also found in household wastes. Little monitoring is done to identify these substances in groundwater.

Some of the many highlights of the Michigan Septic Summit, which was streamed live by Traverse Area Community Media and available to watch now on Facebook, include:

Scott Kendzierski,  Director of Environmental Health Services at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, in his presentation on “Construction and Maintenance of Septic Systems,” identified an emerging issue in septic management: the seasonal rental scenario, in which a three-bedroom home with a septic system designed and permitted in the 1970s for perhaps six occupants is now accommodating more than three times that many people as vacationers, overtaxing an aging or possibly failed system.

Scott Kendzierski presents at the Michigan Septic Summit on construction and maintenance of old and new septic systems in Michigan.

A slide from the presentation by Scott Kendzierski at the Michigan Septic Summit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Mark Borchardt, a research microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Marshfield, Wisconsin, detailed a fascinating story of forensic detection in the case of disease outbreak in a Wisconsin restaurant with a new septic system that failed and contaminated the restaurant’s well and customers.

An audience member asked Borchardt about how high water levels affect septic-system effectiveness in deterring the spread of pathogens. He responded that ideally a system would put maximum distance between a septic drainfield and groundwater level; the higher the water table, the shorter the distance for microbes to travel from wastewater to drinking and surface water.

Jon Beard of Public Sector Consultants, a non-partisan public policy firm in Lansing, revealed perhaps the worst canine job in the world: Source-tracking bacterial contamination. He also shared a startling mid-Michigan survey result: 30% of residents with a septic system did not know they had one. And even more alarmingly, later presenters judged this figure to be too low.

A Michigan Septic Summit participant ponders suggestions from attendees regarding potential solutions for Michigan’s poorly regulated, old and failing septic systems.

Afternoon panels increased our understanding of the complexities facing local communities, all of which are united in the desire to protect groundwater from contamination. Rob Karner, watershed biologist at the Glen Lakes Association in Leelanau County, offered, “I have yet to find anybody who says, ‘I want to pollute the water. I want to drink contaminated water.’ It all comes down to this: Loving the water.”

FLOW’s Executive Director Liz Kirkwood echoed, “We’re having these conversations because we love the Great Lakes. Michigan is the Great Lakes State, and despite our infrastructure crisis, Michiganders really care about clean water. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, we’re here because we love these waters.”

In reflecting on the success of the Septic Summit, FLOW’s founder and famed environmental attorney Jim Olson, summed up the summit this way: “The need to come together never ends. A conference on an important matter concerning our water and the common good goes beyond the adoption of a particular septic system law or code.”

“It brings together a wide spectrum of people, diverse speakers with diverse backgrounds and something to say, and demonstrates the value of education, bringing people together—people who not only care about groundwater and the tens of thousands of failing septic systems, but also about the world and the water, environment, and quality of life in which they live,” Olson said. “I drove home in wonder over the conference and the inspiring feeling from being in a room of people who authentically care, share, and listen at a critical time for our communities and the world.”

FLOW’s Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey facilitates the Michigan Septic Summit’s closing panel discussing, Where Do We Go from Here?

 

You can view the entire slide show here.

What’s next in the wake of the Septic Summit? Stay tuned as FLOW and allies from around the state, including Michigan Clean Water Action, Michigan Environmental Council, and many others, intend to support more local and regional education and build backing for legislative action to develop and pass a statewide septic code.


FLOW and Partners Hosting “Michigan Septic Summit” on November 6 in Traverse City

FLOW and several local and statewide partners will host the Michigan Septic Summit on Wednesday, November 6, at the Hagerty Conference Center in Traverse City. The public event aims to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic pollution. The one-day conference runs from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. and costs $25 in advance (including lunch) or $30 at the door. Click here to register.

Click here for the summit’s agenda.

Septic summit attendees will explore emerging research on the human health and environmental risks presented by old and failing septic systems in Michigan, learn about local and regional programs and regulations adopted in response to surface water and groundwater quality threats, and foster dialogue toward more effective and geographically extensive efforts to reduce risks from septic system waste.

Speakers will include FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood; Nature Change publisher Joe VanderMeulen; Scott Kendzierski, director of Environmental Health Services at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan; Mark Borchardt, microbiologist and researcher at the U.S.D.A. Agriculture Research Service in Marshfield, Wis., and others.  

“Our wastewater can seem invisible being out of sight and therefore out of mind,” said Kirkwood. “But dealing with our septic issues is paramount in Michigan. This is the Great Lakes state. Whenever we flush, we run the risk of polluting our precious waters if we don’t adopt smart septic regulations.”

An estimated 130,000 septic systems in Michigan may be failing, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. In many cases, that means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes, and streams. Yet Michigan is the only state in the nation that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of domestic septic systems.

Some counties, townships, cities, and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements. Others, like Kalkaska County, repealed their point-of-sale ordinance last month. In Leelanau County, the Board of Commissioners has failed to adopt a point-of-sale ordinance despite support from groups like Leelanau Clean Water and the riparian Glen Lake Association.

Eleven Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time the property is sold. Within the first six years of implementing their ordinances, just two of those Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system at all to control their waste water.

Michigan Septic Summit co-sponsors include the League of Women Voters Grand Traverse Area, League of Women Voters Leelanau County, Michigan Environmental Council, Nature Change, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, and Traverse Area Association of Realtors. Promoters include Au Sable Institute, Clean Water Action, Leelanau Clean Water, Michigan Resource Stewards, and Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.