GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The state advertised as Pure Michigan is the only one without a key inspection intended to make sure water stays safe and clean. Now, lawmakers have put forth a package of bills to follow the rest of the nation in instituting a statewide septic code.
“We (Michigan) advertise and try to bring people here for the beautiful waters for fishing and swimming, yet we’re failing to provide this very basic level of protection,” said Megan Tinsley, the water policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, a nonprofit that works on environmental policy. “It’s very startling.”
Eleven of Michigan’s 83 counties have septic codes requiring inspections. The only one in West Michigan is Ottawa County.
That’s even though nearly a third of Michigan households use septic tanks to get rid of their waste and more than a quarter of the tanks are failing, according to the Michigan Environmental Council. When that happens, human waste can leak into the ground and then into groundwater, lakes, streams and drinking water.
“The human waste does carry viruses and pathogens,” Tinsley said. “By just letting that waste go untreated, if you have a failing system and it’s not been detected, that’s either possibly making it into someone’s well water that they rely on for drinking or into a river or stream that’s used for recreation purposes.”
The Barry-Eaton District Health Department had an inspection program in place for about a decade until it was dismantled in 2018. Only a handful of townships and villages have their own codes, none of which are in West Michigan. Kent County only has sewage regulations for issuing septic permits, but those do not include requiring inspecting tanks.
Two bills co-sponsored by state Rep. Phil Skaggs, D-Grand Rapids, would mandate statewide inspections of septic tanks every five years.
Similar efforts have been around for decades but have repeatedly failed.
“Often times it failed simply because of a lack of communication or some bad decisions on certain stakeholders,” Skaggs said. “I think everyone has learned lessons from those mistakes.”
Skaggs said he’s been working on this ever since he was a Kent County commissioner. Now he believes he has the momentum to push the bills through.
“A big chunk of the contamination that is happening is clearly coming from human feces,” Skaggs told News 8. “A large part of that is coming from leaking septics. If we want to have clean rivers and lakes here in Michigan, we need to have a septic inspection system.”
House Bills 4479 and 4480 would launch an advisory committee to make sure the program runs properly.
“To have a body of people from different professions that have expertise in this continuing to provide an advisory role and making sure our waters are protected moving forward, I think that would be a very positive step too,” Tinsley said.
Counties would have the opportunity to run the program locally or pass off the responsibility to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, Skaggs said. The program would also create a database to keep track of all the inspections.
“The database will go to the counties and on to EGLE, so we have a much better understanding where some of the most problematic areas are,” Skaggs said.
Many counties that currently require inspections do so when a home is sold, Tinsley said. That has left many homes behind, so she believes the problem may be even worse than current data shows.
“I think the state’s data for the number of systems we have failing are likely an underestimate,” Tinsley said. “Even though point of sale is a good approach, we are also missing a lot of properties that may never change hands or just go from family to family and there’s no real estate transaction that takes place.”
E. coli can be found in human waste. The state estimates nearly half of its rivers and streams have elevated E. coli levels. A 2015 Michigan State University study checked 64 rivers and found all of them had E. coli levels higher than the federal limit. Some of that is coming from failing septic tanks.
“It could be polluting the local lake where our children swim,” Skaggs said. “It’s certainly polluting the places we want to be part of Pure Michigan, like Lake Michigan.”
“As a parent, I like to be able to take my daughter to play in a stream and feel like that water is not going to be something that makes her sick if she comes into contact with it,” Tinsley said.
The bills would provide funding for local governments to start up their programs. Skaggs is working with EGLE and local health departments with existing septic inspections to see how much the program would cost, though he doesn’t expect it to be an “overwhelming figure.”
“I think we can find that room in the budget perhaps not this year but next year,” Skaggs said.
He said the program would eventually run on “small” licensing fees charged to homeowners as well as fees for those seeking to become an inspector. After that, Skaggs says the program would be self-sustaining at the local level.
The state already has a revolving loan fund that helps help low-income homeowners pay for septic tank fixes over time.
“The revolving fund already has $35 million in it,” Skaggs said. “We’re going to have to keep making deposits into that fund over time. I believe $35 million is enough to begin the process of instituting a statewide inspection system.”
The bills are currently awaiting committee hearings in the House and Senate. Skaggs hopes they pass before the Legislature takes recess at the end of next month.