Ongoing Septic System Info

County Officials Gear up to Challenge ISTS (Septic System) Rules
James Bordewick Park Rapids Enterprise
Published Saturday, February 23, 2008

"The bottom line … is system design costs will 'roughly double' with the new rule changes …the added costs may entice residents to abandon the permitting process altogether. "You are going to get midnight installations all over the place." more…

Exaggerated Septic System Nitrate Health Risks

Please forward this email to Lloyd Kahn for me. It contains information regarding exaggerated claims about septic system nitrate health risks, that Mr. Kahn may find interesting in light of his recent article "The Truth About Septic Systems" that appeared in the Feb/Mar 2008 issue of Mother Earth News. (Mr. Kahn interviewed my supervisor, Sam Carter when he was writing his article.)

The attached file is a review article I wrote that was published in the proceedings of the Eleventh National Symposium on Individual and Small Community Sewage Systems, American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, Warwick, Rhode Island, October 2007. My article explains that there is no evidence to support drinking-water nitrate health risks claims, and questions appropriateness of regulatory requirements designed to reduce septic system nitrate to the lowest possible level. It calls for regulatory agencies to conduct meaningful cost-benefit analyses, and to consider factors that tend to attenuate nitrogen from septic systems after discharge to the soil subsurface, when deciding whether to impose restrictive limits on septic system nitrate.

Also, Mr. Kahn mentions several cases (for example, Los Osos, California) of agencies imposing outrageously expensive treatment system requirements on communities without apparent justification.

As a manufacturer of wastewater treatment systems, Orenco Systems, Inc. believes that there are situations where advanced treatment systems are needed to protect public health or the environment. But we certainly agree with Mr. Kahn that there are plenty of examples of bureaucratic overreaching, and situations where unreasonable and unjustifiably expensive requirements are imposed. Mr. Kahn did a good job of identifying some of the reasons that this happens in his article.

We wonder whether he is aware of a controversy in south Deschutes County, Oregon (the town of La Pine) over the County's plans to require expensive septic system upgrades (ostensibly to protect drinking-water from nitrate)? I have attached two recent articles from an area newspaper that may give you some idea what has been going on.

Jason Churchill
Government Relations Representative
Orenco Systems, Inc.

Septic Tank Additives

Click here for an informative article from Small Flows Quarterly.


Someone recently told me Wisconsin is called “The State of 40,000 Failed Mounds.” Whether this is true or not, I have talked to half a dozen septic pros (guys who deal with actual practical septic matters as opposed to engineering theory) and become convinced that mound technology has serious flaws:

  • Mounds use a tremendous amount of resources: double-washed gravel mined from some unfortunate riverbed, trucks and gasoline for transport, lots of expensive hardware and oh, yes…very large engineering fees.
  • They are unsightly and occupy otherwise usable land.
  • In a lot of cases they don’t work in the rain. The mound gets saturated and, if the ground is too tight, effluent flows out at the sides of the mound. One “septic troubleshooter” told me he had to dig leachfields around the perimeter of a mound to take care of the untreated surfacing effluent.

So the jury is out on mounds.. If you have any experience to communicate, email us and we’ll post it here.


New Technology

Here are some interesting products:

  • Advantex System by Orenco
    A pump/filter that goes in the tank and removes nitrogen and improves quality of effluent. Has textile fabric with 30 times surface area of sand. Is said to cut leachfield requirement in half.
  • Eljen In-Drain
    Recycled plastic Bio-Matt™ media goes in leachfield, aids in oxygen transfer, and increases treatment surface area and effluent storage capacity.
  • Wasteflow from Geoflow Inc.
    Pipe impregnated with anti-bacterial material for avoiding clogging in drip irrigation.
  • Infiltrator Chamber System
    High-density polyethylene chambers that are interlocked on the bottom of a shallow leachfield and allow effluent to pass directly into soil.
  • Piranha
    Aerobic bacterial generator that goes in tank and increases oxygen and therefore purification of effluent. Includes viable cultures of specific bacterial strains that aid in wastewater digestion in tanks and greasetraps.
  • Puro-Flo
    A peat biofilter that is used in place of a sand filter or mound. Very clean effluent is said to be achieved by diverse microflora which adhere to the surface of the peat media.
  • Other Devices
    There are other generic aerobic treatment units that add oxygen to the septic tank process and improve effluent quality.


“Septic Systems Are Not a Health Hazard”
Says Winneburger

John H. Timothy Winneberger, Ph.D., is the author of Septic Tank Systems: A Consultant’s Toolkit (Ann Arbor Science/Butterworth, Boston, 1984), as well as over 60 other publications, and 70 septic system reports. In 1958 he directed an 8-year research program for the FHA on the designs and effectiveness of septic systems. This study, the first of its kind, established him as a leader in the development of sewage disposal technology and an expert in improved septic system designs. He is well known and respected by people in the septic field, and in the past has lectured to health departments, universities, building departments, and engineer’s conventions. For some 20 years he was a full time consultant and advised government agencies (including health and building inspection departments), corporations, builders, and homeowners on septic issues.

Winneberger contends that the idea of septic systems causing health hazards is not based on scientific fact. One of his general contentions, based on research and field work, is that septic systems, even when malfunctioning, do not constitute health hazards. He told me this when I interviewed him when I was doing research for our book on septic systems. He is now retired and living in Santa Fe, and I called him again recently to ask him a few more questions. Here is a summary of our conversation:

NITRATES: Winneberger was hired by Jim Kriesl of the EPA in the ’70s to do a 2-month study on nitrates and sewage. His research indicated that nitrates were not a health hazard, except for the very rare occurrence of hemoglobinemia in infants. With septic systems, he found, some denitrification goes on in the tank, and most nitrates are removed by the soil. He said the EPA wanted him to find a problem, and when he didn’t, they did nothing with his report. He eventually published the results in NITROGEN, PUBLIC HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT: SOME TOOLS FOR CRITICAL THOUGHT (Ann Arbor Press, 1982).

VIRUSES, PATHOGENS: Winneberger contends that the University of Florida (I didn’t get date of research) proved that viruses and pathogens typically do not get out of the tank. He says that sewage surfacing in the backyard is a mess, but does not cause disease. Also that, “Sure, if typhoid organisms are on the ground and you drink water off the ground, you can get typhoid . . . but it just doesn’t happen that way.” From his book: “In general, pathogenic microbes are rather host specific and they fare badly outside of the host.”

PERC TESTS: he says in general they are improperly conducted and not valid.

ENGINEERS: Soils scientists have training in how water moves through soils. Many soils engineers and sanitary engineers are not trained in soil analysis and do not have adequate training and background in septic systems. He thinks most engineers (especially civil engineers) who deal with septic systems have not had the necessary training and do not understand the basics.

He is suspicious of the EPA, saying that in his experience (at least in the past), they were more political than environmental, that they used nitrate pollution as a means of controlling things. “They spent a fortune trying to prove nitrates were harmful.”

HELP: Any feedback from anyone? Can anyone cite sources of health hazards from septic systems (not from sewers) anywhere in the country? Anyone have details about some of the commonly cited studies of pollution caused by septic systems, such as Westwood & Attar (1976) -- using polivirus), Craun (1979 & 1984), Wellings et al (1975). We have tried to find info on these studies on the web, to no avail.


Small Town Disaster

In the town of Monte Rio (600 inhabitants, on the Russian River in Northern California, there is presently a plan afoot that is all too typical in at least California. In spite of there being no evidence of health problems, or documented pollution of water by septic systems, the townspeople are being forced into a 10 million dollar SEWER plan. For the discharge area, the plan calls for taking over a beautiful meadow on a ranch by eminent domain, and paying the owners, who have had the ranch for generations, a fraction of the real value. The plan is by  Questa Engineers, of Pt. Richmond, California. (The ranch owners point out that they applied to the county for a campground permit in the 60s and were turned down by on the basis of it being too wet!) I went to a town meeting in Monte Rio in April, 2001, where just about everyone in the room was against the plan, and townspeople are at this moment organizing to fight it.

What’s typical about this that could be instructive to other small towns? Bogus health hazard brings in expensive engineers who design expensive systems that are often technological overkill and ecologically disruptive (as compared to gravity-fed systems). County officials cooperate with politicos and engineers and some carefully-chosen locals to craft the plan with no input from the general populace.

Through clean water grants, US taxpayers end up buying homeowners (middle-class, white, many upper-income) unnecessarily expensive and often inappropriate means of septic disposal.

Small town dwellers, beware, lest this all-too-familiar scenario rears its head in your area!

The West Marin Homeowner's Septic Gazette

An ongoing series of articles by Lloyd Kahn about septic issues that affect our local area. A small slice of the big pizza…


Create an Oasis with Greywater

The best resource on greywater I have found. A must have for anyone designing or installing a greywater system.
-Harrowsmith Country Life
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  • Adaptations for cold or wet conditions
  • Coordination with rainwater harvesting, composting toilets, edible landscaping
  • Comprehensive list of suppliers and references

Buy This Book


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Choosing, Building and Using Greywater Systems — Includes Branched Drains Revised and Expanded 5th Edition

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It also provides complete instructions for more complex installations, how to deal with freezing, flooding, drought, failing septics, low perk soil, non-industrialized world conditions, coordinating a team of professionals to get optimum results on high-end projects, and “radical plumbing” that uses 90% less resources.

Check out Oasis' website:

For a color catalog of our books and mail-order info,
email or call toll-free at 1-800-307-0131.