Tag: #misepticsummit

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.