Tag: septic system

Lack of Septic Maintenance Requirements Threatens Michigan Public Health

Michigan’s estimated 140,000 compromised septic systems aren’t just a water pollution problem — they’re a threat to human health.

A new video documentary produced by Joe VanderMeulen of NatureChange.org and sponsored by FLOW, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC), Leelanau Clean Water, and the Benzie Conservation District underscores the serious health risks posed by a hidden pollution source fouling groundwater, lakes, streams and drinking water across Michigan.

Evidence is growing that on-site septic systems, used to handle and break down sewage and other household wastes in areas without public sewage treatment systems, are contributing to disease.

Michigan is the only state in the nation that lacks a statewide sanitary code requirement for periodic inspection of septic systems, meaning many are releasing wastes after years or decades without maintenance. Researchers have estimated that at least 10% of the state’s 1.4 million septic systems are failing and releasing pollutants to surface and ground waters.

“The best way to protect public health and our waters from failing septic systems is to enact a state law that makes sure all systems are periodically inspected,” says Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW. “There’s no excuse for inaction in the face of growing science that these systems can make us sick.”

Dr. Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, says, “What we have seen in the studies we’ve done is that the greater the number of septic systems, whether they’re failing or not, the more likely it is that people become ill.” Borchardt attributes the health impacts to fecal pollution.

Michigan State University’s Dr. Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin Chair in water research, directed a 2015 study of 64 Michigan watersheds that found a direct correlation between the number of septic systems and the presence of both E. coli and human fecal bacteria in the water B-theta.  She estimates 10% to 18% of Michigan’s septic systems are compromised.

“The more the human marker in these watersheds, the more septic tanks,” Rose says. “It suggested to me that we have been underestimating the potential for on-site systems … to impact our surface waters.”

Before studies by Rose, Borchardt and others, it was assumed that soil could filter human sewage, acting as a natural treatment system. Unfortunately, if not properly placed and maintained, septic systems do not keep E. coli and other pathogens from ground and surface waters.  

A 10-year inspection program report prepared by the Barry-Eaton Health District found that 27% of on-site sewage systems required some actionranging from simple pumping to full-system replacement. Nevertheless, elected county commissioners repealed the ordinance, citing realtor complaints and property owner cost concerns.

“We don’t accept the discharge of poorly-treated human wastes from municipal sewage systems and we shouldn’t accept it from septic systems,” says Kirkwood.  “It’s time for reform to clean up our drinking water and the water we enjoy for swimming and fishing.”


Click below to view a 70-second promotional video that introduces “Flushing the Future: the Challenge of Failing Septic Systems”:


View the full documentary on NatureChange.org.

Don’t Do It in the River

Photo: A lack of septic regulations can lead to waste in our treasured waters. You wouldn’t “do it in the river,” would you?

By Dave Dempsey

Michigan prides itself on being an environmental leader, particularly in curbing water pollution. But in one area of water policy, Michigan is dead last among the 50 states. It is 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 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.

A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field. The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.

If well maintained, septic systems can handle household liquid wastes effectively.  Unfortunately, many homeowners with septic systems are either unaware of, or unable or unwilling to assure, proper maintenance through pumping and replacement when they fail.

Given the lack of a statewide requirement, some counties and municipalities have adopted local ordinances that generally require inspections of septic systems when property changes hands. Such an ordinance in the Barry-Eaton County health district found 2,566 sites with sewage system failures out of 9,443 sewage system evaluations.

Under pressure from special interests, some local governments are now backing off protecting water resources from failing septic systems. The Barry-Eaton ordinance has been repealed, and Kalkaska County is considering repealing its time-of-sale requirement for septic inspection.

FLOW finds such pollution, and the lack of a state law addressing it, unacceptable.  State legislation to curb this source of water pollution is needed. The Michigan Legislature came close to enacting a law in 2018, but last-minute changes weakening the bill prevented its passage.

If you are concerned about failing septic systems polluting our waters, contact your state representative and senator and ask them to support a statewide law requiring proper maintenance—and keeping this waste out of our waters.