Aging, failing septic systems polluting Michigan waters, harming public health – Detroit Free Press

As Susan Daly closed in on purchasing her next home earlier this summer — a cottage on a hill built in the 1920s in Oakland County’s Highland Township — a home inspector’s discovery of an unusual pipe configuration turned what is often a routine home inspection at property closing time into an examination of the home’s septic system.

“It was a fluke thing that we even had it checked,” Daly said.

As with most locations in Michigan, Oakland County health inspectors typically only look at septic systems at the time of their installation; there is no requirement to review their working order when properties are sold or transferred.

The inspector could not find the septic system’s drain field, the essential portion of the system where liquid effluent, separated from solid wastes, is decontaminated by natural processes and returned to the ground. Eventually, the home inspector found a simple pipe, extending from the cottage out the side of the hill, spilling raw sewage into the countryside for untold years, Daly said.

“I was pretty surprised,” she said. “I didn’t know they still had that kind of thing going on. But if it’s been in the same family all of these years, who would know? I don’t think even the owner knew.”

Now temporarily living with her brother, Daly said the deal for her new home is off, as it doesn’t appear the owner will be immediately fixing the problem — a project likely to cost many thousands of dollars.

Daly’s situation is an extreme example of a more chronic issue in Michigan: aging, failing septic systems fouling the state’s surface and groundwaters, sometimes in a poopy, wet mess but often in a less overt way.

Up to 1.4 million septic systems — individual waste disposal systems for homes or businesses that aren’t connected to a municipal sewer line — still remain in Michigan. One-fifth of U.S. households, more than 21 million homes, still use them in the U.S.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) estimates that about 10% of the state’s septic systems are failing, releasing bacterial pathogens and unwanted chemicals into groundwater and surface water — 31 million gallons of raw sewage per day.

It’s harming public health. Multiple scientific studies tie the presence of nearby septic systems to increased cases of diarrhea in children, and to local norovirus outbreaks.

In the environment, the increased nitrates and other nutrient loads from failing septic systems contribute to reduced water quality on local lakes and other water bodies. A Michigan State University study, published in  2015, found E. coli traced to humans in all 64 rivers examined in the Lower Peninsula, and in higher concentrations in areas with more septic systems. The study tested for E. coli —  the health-harming bacteria often to blame for beach closings —  as well as another bacteria used for confirming fecal contamination is from human, not animal, sources.

But Michigan is the only U.S. state without uniform, statewide septic system regulation. Multiple attempts to adopt statewide regulations have been proposed in the Legislature over the years and gone nowhere, opposed by property owners concerned about high-priced repair requirements; real estate professionals worried about the impact on home sales, and environmental groups that think a uniform statewide septic code would diminish tougher protections already in place in some locales.

“Most of the time, after a system has been constructed and that initial permitting and inspection by the health department has occurred, there isn’t anything that would cause a revisit to see how they are doing,” said Regina Young, an environmental quality analyst with the EGLE division overseeing onsite wastewater. 

Regulation instead is left to a patchwork of county or regional health departments — all with differing staffing levels, budgets and interest in regulating septic systems. Out of 43 county or regional health departments in Michigan, only 10 have requirements that septic systems be examined for proper functionality at the time of a property sale or transfer, according to EGLE. Some counties, cities and townships, however, have adopted localized point-of-sale inspection requirements.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last October proposed a $35 million fund for low-interest loans to homeowners and communities for replacing or eliminating failing septic wastewater part of a $500 million water infrastructure initiative. The proposal, however, has not been approved by the state Legislature.

“Septic systems are a chronic problem that Michigan has continued to fail to address statewide,” said David Dempsey, a senior adviser to the Traverse City-based environmental nonprofit For Love of Water, or FLOW, and author of a report on threats to Michigan’s groundwater released earlier this year. 

“We don’t know what we want of our groundwater. We want to use it for drinking water, and we want to be able to use it as a waste receptacle as well. We don’t allow people to just dump their waste into streams, but that’s essentially what’s happening in slow motion with septic systems.”

A failure to maintain and inspect 

A well-running septic system combines science, technology and nature to keep water protected.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a traditional septic system has all water from a house flowing into one main drainage pipe that leads to a septic tank that’s typically buried. The tank holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle down to the bottom forming sludge, while oil and grease float to the top as scum. Compartments and a T-shaped outlet prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the drain field area.

Liquid wastewater, or effluent, then exits the tank into a drain field, a shallow, covered, excavation with a network of pipes. The pipes slowly release the effluent into porous  surfaces often involving a field of small rocks, which provide pockets of air and help spur natural bacterial activity to remove harmful coliform bacteria, viruses and nutrients. The soil accepts, treats, and disperses wastewater as it percolates through the soil, ultimately discharging to groundwater.

A well-maintained system, with its tank pumped every three years or so, whose users are very disciplined about what flows into it, can have a drainage field that lasts and continues to work effectively for about 20 to 30 years. But thousands of systems in Michigan are older than that, and their remaining effectiveness in doing the job for which they were designed is in question. Maintenance of systems is also often lacking.

The dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more people studying and working from home, have put additional stress on systems that were already beginning to fail, said Chris Wellman, owner of a septic system construction and service company in Howell.

“There’s a lot of systems that are rather iffy that start failing quicker when everybody’s home and using it,” he said. “A lot of them don’t have any idea that you have to keep the tank cleaned periodically, to keep the solids from going out in the field.”

Though septic system inspections aren’t a requirement when a property is sold in most areas of Michigan, many are still having them conducted, at a cost that can go into the thousands of dollars. The recently booming real estate market has Wellman doing more inspections than ever before, he said.

“Quite often, the Realtors will be there, the owners, and we dig down, and before we reach the drain field, it’s black and muck — it’s sewage,” he said.

The cost to fix a failing system varies widely, depending on property and soil conditions. Wellman said rebuilt septic drain fields can cost from $8,000 to $10,000, with specific system needs sometimes pushing the cost to more than $20,000.

That cost, and the difficulty of meeting it, is a big concern, said Jeremy Hoeh, Environmental Health Programs Unit supervisor for EGLE.

“That’s a lot of the reason why folks do look for more of a statewide program — to try to find some additional resources for those types of situations,” he said. 

The costs involved with a fix of a problematic septic system lead some owners not to look, Young said.

“The individual system owner has to be in a teachable moment” — a significant, visible problem — “quite often to be interested,” she said. “They may feel this doesn’t apply to me — if I’m flushing my toilet and everything is going away, then everything must be just fine.”

Brandon Eldridge, business manager of Ball Septic Inc. in Charlotte, said he  frequently sees improperly maintained septic systems.

“It’s not just people moving from the city to the country,” he said. “You get these old farm attitudes of, ‘If it’s working, don’t mess with it.’ A drain field is not something you want to have that attitude with.”

A widespread impact on health

Some central Wisconsin residents were concerned that rules weren’t being followed for the pumping of holding tank septic systems — those that for various reasons don’t or can’t have a drain field, but instead require regular pumping to empty the holding tank — and what that might mean for the environment and public health. Their concerns eventually reached Mark Borchardt, a research microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, based in Marshfield, Wisconsin.

“I told those making the inquiries, ‘I’ll do the literature search and let you guys know what I find.’ And I couldn’t find any literature —there just wasn’t anything out there scientifically,” he said. “Septic systems aren’t particularly sexy.”

Borchardt’s subsequent research over the past two decades has provided some of the most important insights on the connections between septic systems and impacts on public health and the environment.

A peer-reviewed study in 2003 found that after adjusting for other potential factors, some 20% of viral diarrhea cases among local children, and 19% of bacterial diarrhea cases, were attributable to the density of holding tank systems nearby.

“For every increase of one holding tank in a square mile, there was an 8% increase in children developing diarrhea,” he said. “For every additional holding tank in a 40-acre parcel, there was a 22% increase in childhood illness from bacteria.”

The study further found that other types of septic systems also had a correlation to the childhood illnesses, not just the holding tank systems.

Borchardt’s research also has tied failing septic systems to outbreaks of illness. In June 2007, 229 patrons and employees of a new restaurant in northeastern Wisconsin were affected by acute gastroenteritis; six people were hospitalized. The problem was traced to the restaurant’s well-supplied drinking water, where the norovirus was found, a highly contagious virus causing diarrhea and vomiting that’s often passed through food and water. 

The identical virus was present in patrons’ stool specimens and in the restaurant’s septic tank. Tracer tests using dyes injected at two points in the septic system showed that effluent was traveling from the septic tanks through a leaking fitting and reaching the restaurant’s water well field. The septic system was new, installed by a licensed plumber, and met all state code requirements.

In another study, Borchardt correlated an increasing likelihood of well users having human fecal bacteria in their wells depending upon the number of septic systems nearby. “These are not people with problem wells — these are people who were randomly selected,” he said.

It leads to uncomfortable questions that policy makers, and the public, must ask. What’s an acceptable density of septic systems in an area to minimize fecal contamination? Beyond regulatory limits to protect public health, what levels of human waste byproducts are people willing to live with in their drinking water?

“I share with the homeowners my findings for each household that participates in our studies,” Borchardt said. “Some go out and get a reverse osmosis water filtration system after they get the results.”

A patchwork approach

One rule holds true when examining failing septic tanks that might be causing water quality problems: Seek, and you will find.

The Macomb County Health Department is one of the few in Michigan that has a time-of-sale requirement to inspect septic systems. It inspects about 1,200 systems a year through third-party evaluators.

“What we’re seeing on average is about 15% of those evaluations are failures,” county health department director Andrew Cox said.

“A septic failure doesn’t necessarily mean the person has to replace their tank or their field — about half (of those found in failure) result in the system actually having to be replaced.”

Benzie County’s point-of-sale septic inspection requirement has helped keep Crystal Lake near Beulah with better water quality, said Ellen Herscher, a secretary with the nonprofit Crystal Lake and Watershed Association, whose family has owned a cottage on the lake since the 1940s. 

Development around the lake is a mix of very old cottages with aging septic systems, and larger, new developments, both on the lake and in ringed tiers beyond the shore.

“All the new ones have to meet current standards for septic systems,” she said. “Personally, I don’t like all of these McMansions, but that is one positive aspect.”

The association assists the county health department with overhead drone evaluations of the Crystal Lake shoreline, water testing and reporting of problem areas. Locals here probably wouldn’t be supportive of statewide septic regulation, Herscher said, because it would likely weaken Benzie County’s standards.

“We try to make the point to people, you’re worried about cost, but if the lake becomes polluted, your property values are going to go down,” she said. “The more we can test and the more we can really have these facts to demonstrate what is going on, it’s really going to be helpful.”

On northern lakes like Crystal Lake, where many are coming from urban centers downstate and elsewhere, septic education is a key, Herscher said.

“These people come from the cities,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about septic systems — I flushed the toilet and it worked just like it did when I was in Midland.”

But other locations are less supportive of point-of-sale septic inspections, leery of the costs they can impose on property owners versus the benefit derived.

Barry and Eaton counties repealed their point-of-sale inspection requirement in 2018.

“It was very difficult to enforce, and very difficult for policy makers to get through the science and defend the policy,” said Ben Geiger, a Republican who was chairman of the Barry County Board of Commissioners and of the Barry-Eaton board of health at the time.

The inconsistency in requirements on property owners that the regulations sometimes caused were problematic and hard to explain, he said. 

“We weren’t all experts in sanitation,” Geiger said. “When somebody says, ‘I’m being asked to put in a $20,000 drain field, when across the road, I could put it in for $5,000,’ ‘ it’s difficult to articulate why that is good science. 

“I thought it was a noble endeavor, but, ultimately, we were left on our own. If this was a legislative problem, our environment goes beyond our county borders. We felt — on both sides of the issue — that this was something Lansing has to take care of.”

Funding in particular is an issue, Cox said.

“Where we need to, as a state, really look at is proactive funding approaches to help homeowners — especially the elderly, who are on a fixed income, who know they have a problem but just can’t afford to fix it,” he said.

Limited funding to help with the problems has already shown success in some areas. The Ottawa County Conservation District in west Michigan was finding troubling E. coli concentrations in some of its watersheds, and traced it to failing septic systems. Through state-administered federal funds available via the Clean Water Act, the district enacted a system providing up to 75% reimbursement to homeowners to repair and replace septic systems. Since 2016, the program has led to refurbishing or replacing nearly 60 septic systems at or near failure.

“We’re finding a couple of spots where water quality has unquestionably improved,” said Benjamin Jordan, a watershed technician with the district.

The district finds itself always playing catch-up. As five septic systems are replaced, another five or six fail in that same watershed, he said.

“We’ve had people tell us, ‘I’ve never had my system pumped out in the 25 years I’ve been here,’ ” Jordan said. “We’re also finding that some people have what’s basically called cheater pipes — somebody’s septic system or drain field wasn’t working, so they connected a pipe from their tank into a nearby creek, or into a nearby farm field.”

As demonstrated by human activity-enhanced climate change, “it’s difficult to get people to pay attention to slow-motion catastrophes,” Dempsey said. That applies to Michigan’s groundwater and the challenges it faces, including failing septic systems, he said.

“What’s frustrating is, all of these decades on, we still have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy,” he said. “It has to be visible and appalling to get people’s attention.”

Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or

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