Editor’s Notebook - September 2021

Alabama wastewater professionals join forces to salute an aging U.S. Marine with a donated replacement septic system

Editor’s Notebook - September 2021

 Veteran Samuel Digsby of Fyffe, Alabama, and his wife visit with Adrian Casey, the DeKalb County environmental supervisor, after a group of installing professionals donated a new system to the couple. (Photos courtesy of Fred Vengrouskie)

You often hear unfortunate stories about soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam and not being shown the appreciation they deserved for their military service. 

Well, members of the onsite industry in Alabama have been doing their part to make up for the slight to veterans so many years ago. Recently a group of installers, environmental health specialists and industry manufacturer Eljen Corp. joined forces to build a replacement septic system for aging Vietnam veteran Samuel Digsby. As they told me, they felt a calling to lend their labor and wastewater expertise to the retiree living in tiny Fyffe in northeast Alabama.   

Adrian Casey, the DeKalb County environmental supervisor, was called out to the Digsby home on a report of a failing system, and it didn’t take long for him to take on the project as a personal mission. 

“I realized he was a veteran and it pulled at my heartstrings. Veterans have done a lot for this country, and I felt a need to find a way to help him,” Casey says. He encounters desperate situations with onsite system failures a few times a year. “We can’t always help everybody, but we try to help anyone we can. And this was one of those things where, as a good American citizen, it’s your duty to try and make it happen.”

Site challenges

The heartwarming tale began when Casey received a permit application for a system replacement for the Digsby home. A quick walkaround on the property revealed that an engineered solution would be required and that could double the cost of a system with a conventional drainfield. 

The failing drainfield, located in a low spot in the backyard, was likely original to the house built in 1960. At .24 acre, the small lot did not meet the 15,000-square-foot (or .26 acre) minimum size for a conventional system. And the corner lot is bordered by streets on the front and side, with drainage ditches along both roads, causing further setback issues. 

“Our rules allow the setback to be reduced if you use treatment, and the Eljen system is considered treatment. The bed size was much smaller than conventional products, which really saved us a lot of room,” Casey explained. By reducing the 15-foot side yard setback, Casey says volunteer engineer Tony Hendon was able to fit a sand bed utilizing 15 donated Eljen B43 GSF modules laid in three rows beside the brick ranch home. 

Hendon, who started a part-time onsite design company four years ago after moving to the area, decided to use the existing concrete septic tank because it remained in good shape. However, to reach the sand bed, he rerouted the outlet to go around the tank and to the side yard. He was able to design the system to move effluent using gravity throughout, which reduced cost and simplified maintenance. 

“The biggest challenge for this particular system is the smaller footprint,” Hendon says. “We experience a lot of tight lots up here because we have Weiss Lake as a popular destination. We have to overcome a lot of obstacles on those small lake lots a lot of times.”

Casey and Fred Vengrouskie, of Maple Leaf Environmental Services and a representative for Eljen products, started looking for the machines and manpower to build the system. Vengrouskie turned to Joseph Lee, of Lee Boys Construction in Mentone, Alabama, who immediately felt a personal connection to the project. Lee’s late father, Wilbur Robert Lee, Jr., was drafted in 1968 and served as a Marine in Vietnam. Whether it’s as a volunteer fire chief in his hometown or through his excavation business, Lee says he always wants to help folks out of a tough spot. 

Start digging

“This really hit home for me. When Fred told me he was struggling for a year, I says, ‘Your struggles are over.’ Any time I hear that there is something I can do, construction-wise or through the fire department to help a vet, I take care of it.” 

Lee and his team swung into action May 18, delivering an E50 Bobcat mini-excavator and T650 Bobcat compact track loader to build the sand bed. Joining Lee were his son, Dylan Lee, and helper Robert Walker, as well as Lee’s great uncle, Kenneth Wright, owner of Fort Payne Paving, who delivered the sand in his dump truck. Installer and friend Josh Burt, of Josh Burt Construction, also took the day off of work to lend a hand. 

Also on hand were a few other area installers who wanted to see an Eljen system go in the ground, Vengrouskie explained. This was the first time Lee installed the Eljen modules, but he put in a second Eljen system the following day. “I loved it. It was better than working with rock and pipe any day,” he says. 

After a day of digging, Lee says he was honored when Digsby came out to meet the crew. 

“I thought he was a fine, outstanding gentleman to come out and meet us and he appreciated what we were doing for him,” Lee recalled. The experience reinforced Lee’s commitment to helping others where he can. “We’re always doing something like this, but most times nobody knows about it and that’s the way we’d like to keep it. This is what keeps the world turning.” 

Vengrouskie says it was gratifying to see so many people in the onsite industry come together to help a veteran in need. From the Eljen donation to state soil scientists Rick Smith and Boyd Rogers, to Hendon’s design work and the installing crew wrapping up the project, Vengrouskie says it was a rewarding experience. 

And Casey was thankful that so many pitched in to finish the install project at no cost to the Digsbys.

“I would definitely do it again in a heartbeat. I believe in supporting our veterans,” Casey says. “It was a lot of work, but it was worth every minute spent and many trips to get it done.”

Tip of the hat

Installers have been extremely busy this year and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. It’s heartening to see a group of our industry professionals drop everything to give of their time and talents to a veteran in need. Their efforts raise the level of respect the public has for wastewater professionals and reminds us how fortunate we are to work with a great group of people. I’m happy to share this good-news story and encourage installers from across North America to let me know about your own charitable efforts. Thanks to all who helped make a difference for the Digsbys. 


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