Progress Is Slow for New Michigan Septic Code Bills

Last year, two bills were introduced into the Michigan Legislature with the intent of establishing a statewide code for onsite wastewater systems. According to Dendra Best, executive director of WasteWater Education, a nonprofit group based in Traverse City, Michigan, a House Fiscal Agency analysis says the bills would: 

  1. Require the state Department of Environmental Quality to develop a statewide code setting standards for siting and design of onsite systems, for effluent, for inspection and maintenance of onsite systems, and for the qualifications and continuing education of people managing onsite systems, among other things.
  2. Allow local health departments to administer the code.
  3. Forbid local governments from adopting point-of-sale ordinances that require an inspection of an onsite system when a property is sold.
  4. Require the owner of a septic tank to have it assessed at least every 10 years by a local health department or a registered inspector or service provider.
  5. Require alternative systems to be inspected by the state, local health department, or registered inspector at least once every five years.
  6. Require all installations after Jan. 1, 2020, to be done with a permit from the state or local health department and using only products that have been registered with the DEQ for use in Michigan.
  7. Establish a technical advisory committee of 16 people, including three from the onsite industry, to advise the DEQ on its rules.

WasteWater Education, which works to raise awareness of the link between water quality and wastewater management systems, hosted some online forums to discuss the proposed code.

“I guess the biggest complaint that came out was that the code imposed regulation without any discussion of how to implement the rules,” Best says. There was an absence of transparency when the bill was being drafted, and that left out the local health officials charged with implementing the rules, she says.

The Ottawa County Health Department wrote a four-page position paper objecting to the proposed code. Among other points, the department says there is a lack of evidence showing need for the legislation, yet it would also limit the development potential of large portions of the county. (Ottawa County lies immediately west of Grand Rapids and includes a section of the Lake Michigan shore.)

The requirement for regular inspections would create tensions with citizens, and the proposed rules would add a significant burden to the work of local health departments as they track inspections and ensure compliance with the rules, the Ottawa County department writes. The department’s position paper also faults legislators for creating the bill quickly and without broad input from the public.

The best solution would be to start over, Best says, and spend a couple of years refining the details as Ohio did. Although standardization is a good idea, she says, a one-size-fits-all code would not work well in Michigan because it has several geologically distinct areas that need to be treated individually. For example, there is flat and fertile farmland around Saginaw Bay next to Michigan’s thumb, and there is the hilly Upper Peninsula where bedrock may be covered by a thin layer of soil.

The condition of the state’s septic systems has been the focus of more than one study in recent years. In mid-September, the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network released an analysis saying failing onsite systems in five counties around the bay may be a significant cause of water-quality problems in the bay. The nonprofit group advocates for improved water quality in the bay and by extension in the rivers and streams that feed it. The analysis was done by a consulting firm and guided by representatives from the watershed network and eight other conservation and government organizations.

Between 6,000 and 15,000 onsite systems are likely failing, says a press release from the watershed network. That implies a release of as much as 1.26 billion gallons of untreated wastewater every year. But the release also doesn’t blame onsite technology so much as fault system owners.

“When properly designed, sited, installed and maintained, septic systems provide cost-effective and environmentally safe disposal of wastewater. Similar to other household infrastructure, like a furnace or roof, septic systems have an expected service life and require periodic maintenance,” the release says.


The state is providing funds to upgrade onsite systems located near Florida’s springs. Nitrogen pollution is seeping through the ground and emerging in springs where it fuels algae blooms.

As many as 200,000 homeowners may be eligible for the payments of up to $10,000. Money is paid directly to installers.

Drew Bartlett, deputy secretary at the state Department of Environmental Protection, says it is unclear how much nitrogen-reducing systems will cost, according to the Orlando Sentinel. But the cost may drop as systems become more available, he says.

Also in Florida, Brevard County commissioners voted to overhaul the county’s onsite wastewater rules to reduce pollution of the Indian River Lagoon. The new rules ban installation of conventional septic systems on the county’s barrier islands and on mainland areas within 200 feet of the lagoon.

The lagoon stretches for about 50 miles along Florida’s east coast, and Brevard County contains its upstream end just east of Orlando. Only new system installations are affected. People with existing septic systems would not be required to upgrade to nitrogen-reducing units.

Commissioners say they would revisit the ordinance no later than August 2020 when additional research on the effects of septic tanks should be complete.

A special 0.5 percent sales tax implemented for lagoon restoration will be used to remove or retrofit about 3,700 septic systems. The estimated cost is $68 million. The county’s natural resources director says there are about 15,000 septic systems within 165 feet of the lagoon.


A man accused of illegally dumping septage was sentenced to a year in county jail and may pay up to $400,000 in fines.

Carlos Velarde Chavez, 64, owner of Carlos’ Petaluma Septic Services, pleaded no contest in August to one felony count of theft of utility services and one misdemeanor count of advertising construction work without a proper license, according to The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa. Chavez was originally charged in the spring with two felonies and 22 misdemeanors.

Investigators found Chavez while checking complaints of septic tank grit blocking city sewer pipes. Police say he was emptying a 2,800-gallon truck about six days each week into a pipe installed in the backyard of his home and connected to municipal sewer pipes.

Chavez must pay a $30,700 penalty. A hearing will determine how much more he will pay in damages to the municipalities whose pipes he used. Santa Rosa claims he cost the city $353,977, while Rohnert Park says it is owed $15,576.

“It’s a fairly significant case in that it’s large fines, and we did proceed with a felony for the reason that it caused significant harm to the sewer,” says Scott Jamar, chief deputy district attorney. “Cities have to pay for that real cost, and it’s thievery, and it has environmental (consequences) if it’s not disposed of appropriately given that volume.”


The Falmouth Water Quality Management Committee hopes to submit a wastewater management implementation plan for Oyster Pond to the state well ahead of its December 2019 deadline.

The estuary on the southern side of Cape Cod is troubled by nitrogen pollution, and the plan would require the installation of advanced technology onsite systems at homes in the pond’s watershed. At a meeting, the committee discussed connecting homes to a sewer system, but one committee member says onsite technology could be used before the town’s next opportunity to expand municipal sewer.

Another member of the committee says older onsite systems permitted by the state meet a nitrogen standard of 19 mg/L. What is needed for the pond is a concentration of no more than 10 mg/L or removal of 75 percent of nitrogen, the Falmouth Enterprise reports.


Shenango Township in western Pennsylvania recently approved an ordinance requiring specific procedures for abandoned septic tanks.

Unconnected tanks must either be removed from the ground or filled with a material such as sand that can be compacted to prevent collapse, reports the New Castle News. The town is 45 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.


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