Michigan Local Health Authorities Wary of Septic Bill Mandates Without Funding

Health departments do not currently have staff to carry out the bill’s orders, local officials say.

With one household out of three on a septic system, Michigan relies on backyard waste treatment more than most states. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

In the waning weeks of the two-year legislative session, Michigan lawmakers and local health departments are negotiating revisions to two bills that would alter the state’s sanitary code for septic tanks and other household wastewater treatment systems.

Changes are expected to expand the number of septic inspections in order to identify leaking or broken systems that pollute waters and pose disease risks. Securing funding for such actions continues to be the foremost obstacle, according to interviews with local health officials and lawmakers.

“Primarily funding, that’s the big sticking point,” Rep. James Lower, sponsor of one of the two septic system regulation bills that were introduced in March, told Circle of Blue.

Together the bills authorize the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, in consultation with an advisory body, to write a statewide septic code, which was a recommendation in the Michigan water strategy, a document prepared by five state agencies that was released two years ago. Action on the bills needs to happen before the end of the year.

The biggest issue I have with any bill is it being a mandate that increases our requirements without any funding.”–Eric Pessell, Calhoun County Public Health Department

The initial drafts were met with skepticism by the 45 local health agencies, which are responsible for permitting and inspecting an estimated 1.3 million septic systems in Michigan that serve one out of every three households, a number much higher than the national average.

“Our members have concerns given that we are the boots on the ground,” Kristen Schweighoefer, the environmental health director for Washtenaw County and president of the Michigan Association of Local Environmental Health Administrators, told Circle of Blue.

The Michigan Public Health Code orders the state to cover up to half the costs of mandated local programs, of which sanitation is one. “But the code says ‘subject to availability of funds,’” said Eric Pessell, director of the Calhoun County Public Health Department, noting language in the statute that allows lawmakers to wiggle out of the requirement. “We’re just pushing for them to pay fifty percent.”

“The biggest issue I have with any bill is it being a mandate that increases our requirements without any funding,” Pessell told Circle of Blue, echoing concerns raised by Schweighoefer and others.

Local health officials interviewed for this story were not opposed to statewide standards. Schweighoefer said there is a benefit to having consistent criteria for reviewing and approving onsite waste treatment technology that differs from the traditional tank-and-drain-field design. But, she said, the bills make too many demands for departments that are already stretched.

Local health departments are jacks of nearly all trades. In addition to running health clinics, they inspect tattoo parlors and restaurant kitchens, swimming pools and public beaches. Permits for household wells and septic systems are also under their purview.

Pessell is “cautiously optimistic” that the final bill will include some funding. The remainder of the costs to run an expanded septic program would come from local fees or taxes, he said.

Local health officials know that the current system often provides few opportunities for septic system checkups. Ionia County, for instance, requires an inspection for installation of a new or replacement system, said Ken Bowen, the county’s director of environmental health. The only other times that staff inspect the system is at the request of a home buyer, seller, or bank of if there is a public complaint.

“Is it really ideal, after installation, that we potentially never see the system again?” Bowen told Circle of Blue. “We’d like to go out more often to see whether systems are maintained and functioning well. We know there are systems out there that are failing, homes that are piping to the nearest county drain, but we find them piecemeal. It would be great to have a more methodical system to find them, but it takes funding.”

Much of the funding would go toward staff time.

“You have to follow through until it’s replaced,” said Bowen, explaining the process for responding to a broken septic system. “Phone calls, site visits. Sometimes the property owner is not interested. Then you have to get higher levels of government involved. It’s potentially a lot of time and effort.”

Bowen estimates that his four-person department would need a full-time inspector and part-time bookkeeper to meet new inspection, review, and reporting requirements.

Besides funding, health department officials also objected to a provision in initial drafts that would have repealed local time-of-sale ordinances. These ordinances require a septic system inspection before a home is sold.

Local officials did not want state rules to preempt county programs that they feel protect human and environmental health. A review of one such program in the Barry-Eaton District Health Department found that, over 10 years, 27 percent of inspections revealed a septic system that needed major or minor repair.

“We see the statewide bill as weakening our system,” said Schweighoefer, whose Washtenaw County Health Department is one of roughly 10 departments with a time-of-sale inspection ordinance.

The revised draft allows for time-of-sale inspections but does not allow the results to impede the transaction neither does it stipulate when the repair must take place.

Lower envisions the outcome as a negotiation between the home buyer and seller.

“We don’t care who fixes it, as long as it gets fixed,” he said.

Schweighoefer worries that the revised language still eliminates the enforcement mechanism for ensuring that broken units are not only identified, but also fixed. Pessell, however, said the revised language should not be a major obstacle for fixing a failed septic system. Market forces will act once a failure is identified, he argued.

“I think it’s a moot point,” Pessell said. “If you have a failure, I’m not sure many banks will issue a 30-year mortgage. I do believe that. People aren’t going to close [the sale] with a known failure.”

Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton

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