Rules and Regs: Michigan Legislators Make Another Push for Statewide Onsite Code

Also in this month’s update, the Rural Decentralized Water Systems Reauthorization Act proposes to establish an onsite and well grant program through 2028

Rules and Regs: Michigan Legislators Make Another Push for Statewide Onsite Code

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Democrats in the Michigan Legislature followed up on a February promise and introduced four bills that together would create a statewide septic code. Michigan is the only state that lacks such a code.

Sponsors of the bills say their goal is to reduce bacterial contamination in the state’s waterways. “We have a patchwork of local ordinances that aren’t even covering the majority of septics,” Rep. Phil Skaggs, a Democrat from East Grand Rapids and a lead sponsor of the bills, told the news site MLive

“Everyone knows that we have to do something,” said Sen. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, according to the news service Bridge Michigan. “It’s shameful that we’re the only state in the country that doesn’t have a statewide system.”

Last year legislators introduced a bill to require system inspections at the time of sale. That failed. It was opposed by the Michigan Realtors, a trade group. 

“It was a statewide point-of-sale inspection mandate. That’s all it was. It had no structure behind it, no teeth in it, nothing like that,” Brad Ward, vice president of public policy at Michigan Realtors, told MLive. He said the current bills look good. 

Environmental groups are also on board. 

In total there are four bills, two in the Senate and two in the House. One bill in each set (HB 4479 and SB 299) amends the public health code to define what onsite systems are; specify what the duties of local health departments will be; require system inspections at least every five years; forbid installation of a proprietary treatment product after Jan. 1, 2026, unless it has been registered with the state and a permit has been issued; and require counties to phase out or repeal any time-of-sale inspection law. 

The companion bill (HB 4480 and SB 300) creates a technical advisory committee in the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to make recommendations about the standards, technologies and qualifications of people who would inspect and manage onsite systems. The 17-member committee would consist of representatives of the five regional health departments — each appointed by a top state political leader — and various specialists appointed by the governor including professional engineers, an installer, an onsite product manufacturer, an onsite service provider and someone representing onsite system users. 

The bill also creates an onsite fund for administrative costs, for grants to local health departments to carry out their duties, and for grants to lower-income people who need to upgrade their onsite systems. 

Bills are subject to amendment in committee, but the initial versions of HB 4479 and SB 299 state that because onsite systems are subject to failure, which risks public health, there should be a connection to a public sewer system as early as possible. 

Florida House passes new onsite rules

The House passed a bill containing new rules for onsite systems. New septic tanks would be banned in areas covered by management plans for the Banana River Lagoon, Central Indian River Lagoon, North Indian River Lagoon and Mosquito Lagoon.

Onsite systems would be allowed if a municipal sewer connection isn’t possible, but any onsite technology would have to remove at least 65% of nitrogen. Existing developments would have to move to a centralized system by 2030, but again, if that’s not possible, onsite technology with a 65% nitrogen reduction would be required, reported Florida Politics

A similar bill in the Senate was heading for a floor vote. 

National proposal would establish onsite and well grant program through 2028

The Rural Decentralized Water Systems Reauthorization Act, introduced in Congress in April, would increase support for low- and moderate-income households to upgrade wells and onsite systems, said a press release from two of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia. 

The act would reauthorize the Rural Decentralized Water Systems Grant Program through 2028, would increase the maximum loan or grant to $20,000, and would focus money on people earning 60% or less of the nonmetropolitan household income for an area. 

Alabama will work with county to develop long-term sanitation plan, end fines and penalties

After an 18-month investigation into environmental justice in Lowndes County, Alabama, the U.S. Justice Department reached an agreement with the state and a county health department. 

The state will stop imposing fines, penalties and threats of liens on people who cannot afford functional onsite systems, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in prepared remarks. In addition, the state promised to collect data about onsite systems in Lowndes County, examine public health risks, and develop a long-term sanitation plan. 

News reports noted that the county’s dense black soil is incompatible with standard septic systems. As a result, county residents used straight pipes to move wastewater away from their homes and into ditches or low spots. 

“On-site septics are failing across the country, but Lowndes County is the only place I’ve seen where it’s dealt with in a punitive manner,” Catherine Coleman Flowers told the New York Times. Flowers won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2020 for her work to raise public awareness of rural sanitation. 

Indiana transfers authority over onsite systems to a technical review panel

Indiana Legislators approved a bill that would change oversight of onsite systems. House Bill 1402 would transfer authority over onsite systems from the state Health Department to a technical review panel composed of state officials, scientists, academics, and onsite professionals, reported the Indiana Capital Chronicle

The panel could amend state rules and approve new technologies. Any local ordinances stricter than state rules would be invalid unless approved by the panel. 

Also in the bill is language from a separate bill that would allow property owners to override local health department decisions about onsite systems as long as the owners have a consultant who agrees. 

Special wastewater management district approved for Suffolk County

In the first week of May the New York Legislature approved a special wastewater management district in Suffolk County and also approved a 0.12-cent sales tax for a water quality restoration fund. 

Implementing the sales tax addition will require approval in a mandatory referendum, reported RiverheadLOCAL. The tax would generate an estimated $3.1 billion from 2024 through 2060 for projects to protect and rehabilitate groundwater and surface water. 

For several years the county has worked to counter the effects of nitrogen pollution from the estimated 360,000-plus cesspools used for wastewater treatment. The county covers the eastern end of Long Island, and the county and several municipalities enacted laws requiring advanced nitrogen-reducing onsite systems for new construction and some building expansions.

The county legislature must now establish the wastewater district in local law, authorize rates and taxes, and create a 17-member board to manage the district.

North Carolina proposes bill to modify qualifications for onsite inspectors

A bill in the North Carolina state Senate would change the qualifications for onsite inspectors. 

Under current law, environmental health specialists do onsite system permit inspections, and they must hold a four-year degree in environmental health sciences and have special training, reported The Dispatch of Lexington, North Carolina. 

In SB 616, Sen. Steve Jarvis proposes that someone with an associate’s degree in health sciences could become an environmental health associate authorized to do some inspections, including of Type II and Type III onsite systems. Jarvis said an associate would be supervised by a specialist and would need six to nine months of special training. 

Lillian Koontz, director of the Davidson County Health Department, which is in Jarvis’ district, said changes proposed in the bill would help local health departments deal with the sharp decrease in the number of applicants qualified to be health specialists. 

American Rescue Plan Act funds to help Minnesota county replace or upgrade failing onsite systems

Winona County is using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to help people upgrade or replace failing septic systems. The county program can provide up to $15,000, or 75%, of the cost of a new system, reported the La Crosse Tribune.

Money is available for residential or commercial systems that are failing to protect groundwater or are an imminent threat to public health.


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