Chapter 10
From The Septic System Owner's Manual
Excessive Engineering and Regulatory Overkill

ou might say it all started with the Clean Water Act of 1972, when billions of dollars were allocated to clean up America’s water. With all that money floating around, it didn’t take long for some engineers and some regulators to devise a methodology for extracting the maximum amount of grant money available. It was all so easy. First, septic systems are underground and out of sight; low visibility. Second, who could argue with the idea of “clean water”?

So 15–20 years ago, engineers and regulators (some of them) decreed that simple gravity-fed septic systems were inadequate. They tightened up requirements, instituted new regulations, and thus began the new world of overblown, over-expensive septic systems. I got personally involved in a typical such scam in my hometown in 1989, and it was actually this experience (fighting against an albatross of a plan) that led to this book.

I considered writing about this situation when this book was first published in 2000. But the amounts of money were so huge, and the schemes so well orchestrated, I didn’t think anyone would believe it. This was corruption completely missed by the media. The sums were huge. No one had an inkling. Well now, almost seven years later, the same things are going on, and more so. In this chapter, we’ll give you the background, the history, and then case studies of small towns caught up in distorted engineering and excessive onsite wastewater disposal costs. In Chapter 11, “The Tale of Two Sewers,” John Hulls describes how two California towns took two very different approaches in dealing with over-inflated wastewater projects. This leads into Chapter 12, “Small Town System Upgrades,” where we describe how a community can take control of its own wastewater destiny and utilize local power in dealing with engineers and regulators.

A Brief History of the Clean Water Act and the
EPA Validation of Onsite Wastewater Treatment

There was very little national regulation of waste discharge until the Clean Water Act of 1972, which was spurred by the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland actually catching fire from pollutants, and the Santa Barbara oil spill, which coated the beaches of California with 250 million gallons of crude oil. The act required anyone discharging wastes to obtain a permit and properly treat the effluent from all point sources of pollution. It started a massive federal program to upgrade sewers and waste treatment plants, allocating over $250 billion by 1990. Citizens of Cleveland now enjoy dozens of dragon boats racing down the Cuyahoga River at the annual Burning River Festival, and many rivers and lakes in the nation have been restored to the point that the public can enjoy them once again.

During this time, even though the emphasis was on providing treatment to major population centers, so much federal money was available that one EPA staffer said that if a kid in a remote part of Wyoming took a leak behind a bush, the EPA would receive a grant application to hook him up to a sewer. But it soon became apparent that centralized systems could not serve scattered rural populations economically, and even if the sewers and plants were funded by massive federal dollars, the operating expenses were way beyond what communities and individuals could pay.

Many people felt that the EPA, along with state and local officials, had ignored onsite treatment and forced communities into burdensome central systems. As housing development moved further away from urban areas, and there were problems with antiquated systems and direct discharge of waste to bodies of water, attention turned to onsite disposal. And as one seasoned observer said, “The EPA realized there wasn’t enough money in the world to get everyone on to centralized sewers.” Concurrently, the EPA started looking more closely at decentralized wastewater systems as a means of further improving the environment. (Up to that point the EPA had more or less considered septic systems an inferior form of wastewater disposal.) EPA researchers and regulators started serious studies of onsite treatment and new technologies as an environmentally favorable means of handling household waste.

In 1997, the EPA made a Report to Congress that recognized that onsite disposal systems can often protect the environment as well or better than centralized systems: “Response to Congress on Use of Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems” (EPA 832-R-97-001b. Date Published: 04/01/1997).

The executive summary made several key findings:

Benefits of Decentralized Systems

Decentralized systems are appropriate for many types of communities and conditions. Cost-effectiveness is a primary consideration for selecting these systems. A list of some of the benefits of using decentralized systems follows:

  • Protect Public Health and the Environment —
    Properly managed decentralized wastewater systems can provide the treatment necessary to protect public health and meet water quality standards, just as well as centralized systems. Decentralized systems can be sited, designed, installed and operated to meet all federal and state effluent standards. Effective advanced treatment units are available for additional nutrient removal and disinfection requirements. Also, these systems can help to promote better watershed management by avoiding the potentially large transfers of water from one watershed to another that can occur with centralized treatment.
  • Appropriate for Low Density Communities —
    In small communities with low population densities, the most cost-effective option is often a decentralized system.
  • Appropriate for Varying Site Conditions —
    Decentralized systems are suitable for a variety of site conditions, including shallow water tables or bedrock, low-permeability soils, and small lot sizes.
  • Additional Benefits —
    Decentralized systems are suitable for ecologically sensitive areas (where advanced treatment such as nutrient removal or disinfection is necessary). Since centralized systems require collection of wastewater for an entire community at substantial cost, decentralized systems, when properly installed, can achieve significant cost savings while recharging local aquifers and providing other water reuse opportunities close to points of wastewater generation.

With this change in perception at the federal level, along with an EPA-funded program for evaluating new technologies, many advanced systems were developed for onsite wastewater treatment and improved subsurface water infiltration systems (SWIS), the new name for the old drainfields. Since the first edition of The Septic System Owner’s Manual, many of these systems are now in widespread use and approved by many state and local officials, not only for new installations, but the repair and upgrade of older septic systems. (See Chapter 9, “Advanced Systems,” pp. 86–99.)

At the same time, health regulators have concluded that municipal sewage systems have significant problems, operating costs, and disadvantages, not limited to leaking pipes that directly contaminate the groundwater with raw sewage, infiltration problems, mixing with industrial wastes, concentrated environmental impact from high volumes of discharge at a single point, and dumping untreated waste during storm water overloads. All these factors are important considerations for a small community when weighing its options for onsite or offsite treatment of its wastewater.

“Stop Bad-Mouthing Conventional Onsite Systems”

This was written by Randy May, supervising sanitary engineer with Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection:

“… Stop bad-mouthing conventional onsite systems. Our literature is replete with studies that illustrate that properly sited, designed, and installed conventional systems at rational densities are the most elegant and effective sewage disposal systems out there. Read the literature with care and understand that, when done properly, conventional septic systems are passive, cost-effective, tertiary systems. Recently, one author compared use of such systems with the long discredited practice of primary treatment/point source discharges to surface waters. That is a false analogy. A septic tank is a primary treatment tank where physical operations predominate. As a result, great process stability is the rule. The biomat in the leaching system and surrounding unsaturated soils structure provides highly stable secondary and tertiary treatment of effluent, virtually unmatched in sanitary engineering …”

21st Century Septic Scams: Homeowners Beware!

As outlined above, the EPA began its “clean water” program by funding centralized sewers. They considered decentralized onsite wastewater treatment (septic systems) as low-tech and temporary. However, as time passed, the EPA realized there was not nearly enough money to have rural areas “sewer up.” Concurrently, they began to look anew at septic systems and over the years have changed their outlook. Funding has been available now, for some years, from both federal and state sources, for small town wastewater improvements.

Unfortunately, the availability of clean water grants has created a “pork barrel” industry in various parts of the country, where unnecessarily expensive and ecologically disruptive wastewater plans are being forced on unsuspecting communities. Not only small towns, but individuals as well, now have to cope with overly restrictive regulations, and the cost of septic systems has skyrocketed.

It may have started 15 years ago in California, when engineers began to convince health officials that the tried and tested gravity-fed septic system did not work (at least in a majority of cases). Where previously you could install a gravity-flow system, homeowners now had to install high-tech, expensive, electricity-powered “mound” systems. My septic system cost less than $3000 in 1972, and it has worked beautifully for 34 years now. My neighbor, maybe 500 feet away, with the same soil profile, recently had to install a $40,000 mound system.

Homeowners Be Forewarned

There are two ways that you, the homeowner, will run across this scam:

  1. As an individual: Either your system fails, or you build an addition, or some bureaucratic requirement of some sort means you have to hire an engineer who will design an expensive (where I live now $30,000+) system requiring a huge mound, pumps, and electricity in lieu of a simple, gravity-powered septic system which, in many if not most of these cases, would work fine.
  2. As a member of a community: If this has happened, or is happening in your town, you’ll see the following modus operandi in operation. If it hasn’t happened to your town yet, watch for it on the horizon. Here’s how it works:

Multi-Million Dollar Wastewater Plan

You and your neighbors will suddenly be confronted by a consortium consisting of engineers, regulators, and special interests who have devised an expensive community-wide plan. You will be told that:

  1. Your town is polluting. Testing shows a high coliform count (or high nitrogen levels) in the river, creek, lagoon, or groundwater. Invariably officials will not have conducted the DNA testing necessary to determine if the pollution is of human or animal origin. The pollution is assumed to be human, and assumed to be the result of failing septic systems. This is bad science, and many systems have been condemned on this basis. (Formerly officials said DNA testing was “too expensive,” but it has come down in price in recent years.)
  2. Your systems are failing.” Standards (often set by local engineers) will deem that your system is failing. “No, I’m afraid a gravity system can’t work here and, by the way, you can hire me for $8000 to design a high-tech system.”
  3. We can get you a grant.” Grants are available for “clean water,” and you will be told by regulators and engineers that your area qualifies for funding.

Typically this will take you by surprise. No well-publicized town meetings, just a small group quietly doing the planning. By the time you find out about it, “… the train has left the station.” A building moratorium is sometimes enacted, to force residents to go along with an expensive wastewater system. Homeowners may be told they will not be able to sell their house if the area is condemned: scare tactics that are especially effective with old folks.

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