Septic systems’ dirty secrets


Living in the country comes with certain freedoms. But dumping sewage into ditches is not one of them.

Last week, Brad Espen, of the Wood County Health District, estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the septic
systems in the county are failing. That means more than 4,000 systems are letting raw or partially
treated sewage seep into the soil and surrounding waterways.
As a reporter, I sat through many meetings with hostile rural residents angry that they were being forced
to abandon their failing septic tanks and hook into public sewer systems. Many vehemently denied their
septic tanks could be at fault — even though the ditches near them reeked of sewage and the E. coli
bacteria counts were off the charts.
I recall one resident at a public meeting conceding that no septic system can consistently treat sewage
as completely as a public wastewater system. In the next breath, though, he insisted that requiring
sewer tap-ins was unjust.
Ohio regulations require any residence within 400 feet of a sewer line to tap into it.
So bit by bit, communities have been hooked into sewers. Those were followed by clumps of houses that
were ordered to tap into nearby sewers by the health department or the Environmental Protection Agency.
But there are still thousands of septic systems, functioning at varying degrees, throughout the county.

Any who view seeping septic tanks as a victimless crime, need only look back to the Toledo water
restrictions this past summer. Though human sewage was not the primary culprit in the water crisis, it
undoubtedly played a part in the contamination.
Just a few years ago, tests of ditch water in some rural clusters of homes in the county reported E. coli
levels as high as 960,000 counts per 100 milliliters of water — far above the level considered a public
health nuisance. Those readings led the health district and EPA to order public sewers be extended to
those areas.
But it’s just not practical nor affordable to run sewer lines to every home dotting the rural landscape
in Wood County. That means it’s up to the landowner to take responsibility for the installation, ongoing
maintenance, and possible replacement of septic systems.
According to Espen, Ohio has the most outdated septic system rules in the U.S. However, new regulations
taking effect in January put some teeth into local public health orders for septic repairs or upgrades.

Espen plans to create a public database to track failing systems, permits, inspections and correction
plans. Because the costs for septic tank repairs or replacements can exceed $10,000, Espen said the
health district will be flexible with homeowners who need to  spread the costs over time.
“What I hope to see is people start pumping their tanks, taking care of their systems,” he said. “We’ve
gone out there and beat it to death with videos, informational sheets — people don’t care about their
septic systems as a general rule of thumb. They’d rather spend their money on other things, as would I.”

But the fact is, while country living comes with certain freedoms, it also comes with serious

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