Contemplating the Value of Onsite Wastewater Solutions

Weighty issues come to the forefront, including public funds going to private septic systems and the religious rights of Amish people to refuse to meet graywater treatment standards

Let’s dig into the Onsite Installer news and views grab bag and pull out items to discuss amongst ourselves.

Do you think about onsite systems as the more reliable wastewater option? 

A reader of the Port Charlotte Sun in Florida wrote a letter to the editor in which she argued individual private septic systems act as a hedge against disastrous widespread infrastructure problems similar to the failure of the electrical grid in Texas earlier this year. Barbara Gavel said small-scale decentralized wastewater treatment provides advantages over large-scale sewer systems, especially if those systems are privatized like the Texas power grid.

“There have been studies done on water quality in this area and have found no human fecal pollution in the waterways. This means the septic systems are doing their job. If taken care of and emptied on a regular basis, these systems work very well,” Gavel wrote. “Installing a sewer system in an area with a high-water table can lead to disaster if the system breaks down and raw sewage leaks into the waterways. It happened in November of 2020. A line was broken … spilling 48,000 gallons of raw sewage and another line … spilled 800 gallons.” She concluded: “Keeping septic systems in working condition is a much more environmentally friendly alternative.”

She shares an interesting perspective and a valid concern. How often have we heard local governments tout the idea of expanding municipal sewer systems as a way to improve wastewater treatment and the environment? Do we ever stop to ask about the benefits of individual systems, and how the failure of one treatment system doesn’t impact the wastewater flow down the line? 

Individual failing decentralized systems can often be repaired to peak functionality without causing widespread negative impact on an entire community. But what happens when the municipal treatment plant has a problem? That could have a Texas-sized impact on a community and its precious environmental resources. So when you hear people in your community clamoring to replace septic systems with the big pipe, remind them that onsite treatment isn’t always the lesser wastewater treatment alternative. Sometimes, as a wise and vertically challenged older woman once told me, “good things come in small packages.”

He thinks it’s OK for the public to fund private septic system replacements. Do you?

A reader of the Examiner News in New York recently promoted the idea of taxpayer funding of onsite systems as potentially a more cost-effective way to address pollution problems near sensitive waterways over expanding public sewer systems. Jay Batchelor said he expects paying to replace problem systems will be less expensive for residents than paying to hook up to sewers and pay annual fees indefinitely.

“The $10 million in East of Hudson funds would pay for these failing systems at no cost to the resident, with money left over to actually dredge and aerate the lake,” he explained. “These systems range from $5,000 to $22,000. The maintenance fee is $375 a year; pumps last for seven to 10 years. These systems run on about 2 amps, which is equivalent to two 100-watt lightbulbs. This is cheaper than $1,187 annually for sewers.”

Batchelor is essentially saying, “do the math,” and then choose the best solution to achieve a cleaner environment, even if that means private homeowners derive a substantial benefit. This idea benefits the few on one level, but it benefits the many in another way. 

The East of Hudson funds are part of a $38 million allocation from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to protect critical watersheds. Across the country, we’re seeing more public funds earmarked for both public and private projects aimed at water quality issues. 

We all want to stress the need for personal responsibility — in other words, clean up your own messes — but strong cases are being made that these investments are necessary for the greater good. The onsite installing industry is a beneficiary of generous funding programs. Governments are recognizing the value of decentralized wastewater treatment and installers are ready to provide the advanced solutions to ensure clean water for future generations.

Can religious freedom be infringed by a graywater treatment requirement?

I’ve been watching a battle between an Amish religious sect and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over graywater disposal for several years and I never thought the case would rise to the U.S. Supreme Court. But in fact, earlier this year, members of the Amish community petitioned the high court to weigh in on this issue.

Since 2015, four members of the Fillmore County Swartzentruber Amish community have fought an order by county and state officials requiring them to install a graywater treatment system on their farms. They argued that mandating a subsurface treatment system under the county rules violates their religious freedoms. Instead, the Amish proposed what they said was an acceptable alternative, a mulch basin system, to handle the flow of graywater from their homes. 

Depending on the Amish sect, some groups refuse to use electrical power or other modern conveniences in the name of religious traditions. In the past, governments have faced off with Amish over the use of outhouses and pit toilets when septic systems are required by local codes. 

Attorneys for the Amish argue questions under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act. They are, does the government have a compelling interest in regulating the disposal of graywater, which includes laundry, bath and dishwasher water? And is a septic system the least restrictive method when they argue that 20 states allow Amish-preferred mulch basin systems. 

Lower courts ruled against the Amish in this case, prompting an appeal to the high court. “The Court of Appeals decision made it clear that all households in Fillmore County are required to comply with the Fillmore County subsurface treatment system requirements by installing proper septic systems,” Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson wrote in one statement to the media. 

On its face, this seems like a minor legal skirmish. But it presents a weighty issue that has a tangential connection to the onsite industry. What takes precedence, the perceived religious objections to a particular form of wastewater treatment or the state’s public health protection standards? 

From where I’m sitting, the people of Minnesota should be able to expect uniform standards to protect public health and it’s hard to see how individuals or a group should be able to skirt best practices or graywater treatment. Then again, I am not Amish and don’t pretend to understand what makes a subsurface system objectionable and a mulch basin acceptable. What do you say? 


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