Onsite Regulations and Environmental Sustainability Go Hand in Hand

You may think society is over-regulated in general. But we need to maintain strong local health department oversight to replace an aging wastewater infrastructure.

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From serving on my local city council and county board, I recall constituents and local residents attending meetings often railing over how many rules and regulations homeowners have to follow. Permits, variances and inspections gummed up the approval process for completing projects such as planting a tree in the parkway, installing a fence in the backyard or updating an electric service. They saw no good reason for pages and pages of compliance codes for seemingly simple home improvements.

After sitting in on years of public works committee meetings where we reviewed these rulebooks, maybe they had a good point in some cases. I can understand their frustration of seeking approvals for one thing or another and then having to pay a fee and face an inspection of the completed work. But I have also grown to understand how the rules in place make a lot of sense when you look at the big picture.

The need to control construction codes and ensure safety practices are followed is deeply ingrained in the civil servants I have worked with through the years. And I think it’s generally a really good thing that someone is making sure high standards are followed. So it mystifies me when a governmental body strips away a layer of oversight, particularly in the area of wastewater treatment that I have followed closely for 20 years.

Such is the case currently in Indiana, where the state legislature has passed the House Enrolled Act 1402, which some observers have said transfers oversight of septic systems from local health departments to homeowners, the system users.


It appears the new law makes some welcome changes — such as paving the way for easier statewide approval for use of new treatment technologies. It also seeks to speed up system design approval, requiring local health departments to issue residential onsite system permits no more than 30 days after receiving a completed application.

But it also prohibits local health department employees from “entering a property to inspect a residential onsite system” in several circumstances, such as if a private contractor hired by the homeowner says the system is functioning properly. And if a local health department determines an onsite system has failed, the law sets out a process where homeowners can seek a second opinion to withdraw the local health department order.

The new law interestingly also voids any local or county law that would be more stringent than onsite rules set forth by the Indiana Department of Health. Critics could argue this takes away local control of onsite regulations in the event that one region has a greater concern about polluted waterways or neighbor complaints about failing septic systems.

Environmental watchers say the changes are akin to turning inspection compliance over to the system owner, who would have a financial interest in reversing failure orders to avoid installing or repairing systems. And they argue this is not the time to relax onsite regulations.


A report in the Lebanon Reporter newspaper explains that of the approximate 800,000 onsite systems in Indiana, the state Department of Health estimates that up to 200,000 systems are failing or have failed. The report stated that Indiana has no statewide system for tracking the existence of septic systems and which ones need repair. Any system records are kept by local governments, and it was argued that the new laws put up roadblocks to local inspections and orders to repair or replace systems.

Dr. Indra Frank, the environmental health and water policy director for Hoosier Environmental Council pointed to a report that estimated more than 7,000 miles of streams are impaired with E. coli and failed systems are part of the problem.

“This bill … has the potential to increase the number of failing septic systems in Indiana. Unfortunately, a failing septic system can mean untreated or inadequately treated sewage winding up loose or flowing into some of our streams and waterways,” Frank told the newspaper.

Tim Stottlemyer, board president of national group Clean Choices Clean Water, told the Lebanon Reporter he thought the new law wouldn’t help improve the onsite wastewater infrastructure. “We have a low water IQ as a society. … Instead of tying the hands of health agencies, give them more resources to help them do their job better,” he said.

The new Indiana law appears to be a mixed bag. While it addresses inherent problems we see in the onsite industry — including the common permit approval delays and inconsistent approvals of new technologies — it also does appear to chip away at the ability of local regulators to cure problem systems.


We have all met homeowners who will do just about anything to avoid repairing or replacing their aging septic systems. They are in the minority, I believe, as most people are concerned about polluted waterways or endangering a nearby drinking water supply. But the few may seek to exploit any easing of regulations so as not to deal with a treatment problem that is their responsibility.

We shouldn’t let that happen.  

Clean water is a basic need for all of us. Oversight of wastewater treatment is particularly important where private, decentralized systems are in place to handle the flow and make sure effluent is safely returned to the aquifer. The use of septic systems as a percentage of overall wastewater treatment is growing and the onsite industry is continually improving their performance. There is good reason to be bullish about the future of septic systems that were once looked at as only a bridge to the big pipe of municipal sewer service.

However, as an industry we must also recognize that expanded usage of private systems requires greater proof of performance to ensure a cleaner environment for generations to come. Professional, periodic inspections are a key to wider acceptance of onsite wastewater treatment as a permanent solution in many development situations.

Whether or not we perceive there is too much government regulation in our lives, installers must support greater scrutiny of private wastewater systems.


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