The Facts about On-site Septic Systems February 2007 The Town of Chincoteague has requested assistance from Waste Water Management, Inc. in gathering data and developing factual information packages to address the three basic issues facing the citizens and property owners as a central public sewer system is contemplated for the Island. This Public Information package is the compilation of an internet search entitled “failed septic systems in coastal areas” and recent articles for widely read newspapers and periodicals. 1. American Communications Foundation NEWSOURCE: Key Sewage, “The Florida Keys Need Help With Their Seeping Sewage Problem” http://www.acfnewsource.org/environment/key_sewage.html “The Florida Keys face an environmental problem that threatens to ruin the nation’s only living coral reef and its diverse marine habitat. Faulty and antiquated sewage systems are seeping human waste into the aquatic environment, forcing the closure of beaches.” “Sewage is leaking from the faulty cesspits, septic tanks and sewer systems through the porous coral foundation of the islands into the marine ecosystem. Tests have shown that the contents of a toilet flushed down a cesspit can show up in the nearshore canals in a matter of hours. After twelve hours the sewage can be detected three to five miles offshore along the delicate living coral reef.” “There’s a reason we’re a national marine sanctuary, we’re a place that has an extraordinary marine environment. But to protect it and upgrade our sewage system is expensive and we need help. We are about to lose something extraordinary, and that’s a loss for everybody.” Over the past twenty five years, the American Communications Foundation has produced more than 2300 programs on substantive public policy and social issues for commercial radio and television. It takes great pride in that accomplishment and hopes that it has contributed to the quality of broadcast journalism in the U.S. Its primary goal from the beginning has been to uphold the principles of non-ideological, non-advocacy, non-partisan journalism, despite many external pressures in today's media landscape. 2. American Groundwater Trust: “Septic Systems for Waste Water Disposal” http://www.agwt.org/SepticSystems.htm The American Groundwater Trust is a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of the nations groundwater resources by: • Promoting efficient and effective ground water management • Communicating the environmental and economic value of ground water • Showcasing ground water science and technology solutions • Increasing citizen, community and decision-maker awareness • Facilitating stakeholder participation in water resource decisions. The American Groundwater Trust states: “There are two main factors that can cause problems from septic systems: overload and lack of maintenance, the result of which can be contaminants moving to the ground water, rise of wastewater to the surface or both.” “Plumes of nitrate above the drinking water standard level of 10 parts per million have been known to spread laterally hundreds of feet from leach fields over a period of 10 to 20 years. Buildings and roads should be set back from leach fields so that they will not interfere with proper operation of the system. Problems may occur if heavy trucks drive over the leach field, resulting in excessive compaction of soil and broken drainage pipes.” 3. Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program: “On-site Wastewater Disposal Systems Action Plan”, http://www.buzzardsbay.org/septicac.htm Within Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay drainage basin approximately 100,000 people rely on-site wastewater disposal systems. In most of the localized embayments water quality degradation is more impacted by on-site wastewater disposal system failures than from treatment plants. The contamination of Buzzards Bay from on-site wastewater disposal systems occurs in at least three ways: • Overt failure, when soils can no longer receive and pass septic tank effluent resulting in the rise or back up of sewage in the system. • Covert failure, in which many onsite systems installed before 1978 had little or no separation from groundwater where sewage enters the groundwater directly without the benefit of filtration through unsaturated soil. • Overflow pipes discharging directly to surface waters. “Pathogens in septic tank effluent are removed primarily through two mechanisms in the soil, physical retention or straining, and adsorption onto soil particles. The efficiency of these processes decreases as the moisture in the soil increases and drops drastically if the soil is saturated.” Research has concluded that although fecal indicator organisms are adequately filtered out in the leaching component of on-site wastewater disposal systems, the virus component of sewage may pass through the unsaturated soil layer, reach groundwater, travel great distances and become public health threats to any resource area (aquifer, shellfish area, swimming beach) intersected by the groundwater flow. Further, the cumulative impact from all septic systems contained in the drainage area can be significant because nitrogen is not typically attenuated within the subsurface. Excess nitrates reaching near coastal waters will accelerate eutrophication and contribute to decline in overall water quality. 4. The Florida Times-Union, Patton, Charlie, “Septic Tanks: What stinks”, November 27, 2005 http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/112705/met_20407285.shtml “Septic tank failure is a consistent cause of the pollution and has new Jacksonville, Florida city agency seeking about $300 million to convert homes to the city sewer system.” Experts say there is nothing wrong with the use of septic systems to dispose of human waste, as long as the systems are carefully maintained. But even people who believe in the use of septic systems concede too many septic tank owners don’t carefully maintain them. That’s bad news for Jacksonville, because of its 50 rivers and streams on the state of Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s impaired revers list, those waterways were found to have consistently high levels of fecal coliform, a bacteria found in the waste of humans. 5. Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, R. B. Browm, et al: “Notes in Soil Science: On-site Sewage Disposal- Influence of System Densities on Water Quality” December 1987, No. 31. http://pasture.ecn.purdue.edu/~epados/septics/density.htm “On-site sewage disposal system densities greater than 0.17 OSDSs / acre or 1 OSDS / 5.9 acres resulted in closure of shellfish harvesting beds in the watersheds examined.” The apparent importance of Onsite Sewage Disposal Systems (OSDS) density depends in part on the geographic scale that one employs to examine the question. Duda and Cromartie (1982) and Everett (1987) related the closure of shellfish harvesting beds to density of OSDSs along the coast of North Carolina. They found a highly significant correlation between bacterial levels in surface water and increasing density of OSDSs. 6. King County, Washington, Health Department: “Wastewater Program, What to do if you have a Septic System Failure” http://www.metrokc.gov/health/wastewater/owners/failure.htm “All septic systems have a limited life expectancy so one can expect that they will fail at some point in time.” Failing system systems can expose you, property owners and their neighbors to sewage. Sewage contains pathogens and viruses that can cause disease. Sewage can also contaminate ground and surface water possibly pollute nearby wells, rivers, streams and lakes. 7. Marin County, California: Septic Matters: A Public Information Project, "Failed Septic Systems, the Environment, and your Wallet" http://www.septicmatters.org/archive2.html “A failing septic system can be bad news for your bank account. In the worst-case scenario, replacing it can cost as much as $50,000. But a failed septic system can wreak even more havoc on the environment.” Although it’s hard to quantify, faulty septic systems are a significant contributor to groundwater contamination in Marin County (California). Many old drainfield trenches are buried deeper than modern designs and pose a greater threat to the water table. Septic systems usually fail because of improper siting or poor maintenance. When septic systems fail, inadequately treated wastewater is released into the environment. Any contact with untreated human waste can pose significant health risks and untreated sewage from a failing septic system can contaminate nearby wells, groundwater and drinking water sources. Bacteria and viruses from human waste can cause dysentery, hepatitis, typhoid fever, and other health problems. Many serious historical outbreaks of these diseases were caused by contaminated drinking water. Nitrate and phosphate, wastewater byproducts, cause excessive algae growth in lakes and streams. These algae blooms can choke out and kill aquatic life. 8. Maryland Department of Environment, “Agency Warns Against Eating Shellfish from Private Piers”, http://www.mde.state.md.us To protect public health, Maryland Department of Environment recommends against consuming oysters and other bivalve mollusks grown from private piers. Because shellfish pump large quantities of water through their gills each day, even low concentrations of harmful organisms from the waters can reach dangerous levels. If shellfish are eaten raw or partially cooked and are contaminated with bacteria or viruses illness may result. “Activities such as the unexpected failure of a neighbor’s septic system, drainage of water form yards where pets are kept and other factors can introduce disease-causing organisms, which can be concentrated by oysters posing a risk to people eating them.” 9. Mississippi State University Sea Grant: “Coastal Environment” http://www.msstate.edu/dept/crec/envi.html Growth in coastal development has converted thousands of acres of land, including wetlands and upland acreage previously under silviculture to commercial and residential uses. Nonpoint source pollution is recognized nationwide as a major contributor of contaminants to rivers, waterways and inshore waters. Common sources of nonpoint pollution in Mississippi and Alabama include agriculture, silviculture, stormwater runoff, surface mining, landfills, hazardous waste sites and failing individual septic tanks. Failing septic systems are problems for individual homeowners as well as the environment. Individual homeowners are concerned because a failing system may cause sewage to back up into their homes. Environmental concerns arise when the native soils are not properly treating the sewage and untreated or partially treated sewage enters the water table contaminating private drinking water wells, rivers, bayous, or near shore waters. “The degree to which the effluent is purified is dependent on the physical and chemical characteristics of the soil and the elevation of the groundwater table. Coastal plain soils inherently are not good for this type of treatment, yet it is the treatment method most often utilized.” 10. Missoulian.com News Online, Perry Backus: “Report Cites Threat of Septic Systems”, December 6, 2006 http://www.missoulian.com/articles/2006/03/18/news/mtregional/news06.txt “We have options - we can put homes on sewers and use new technologies at centralized wastewater treatment plants or we can require high-performing septic systems that remove nitrogen. But we can not just blindly increase the number of septic system by thousands each year and expect that water quality will not suffer.” Comments by Jim Carlson of the Missoula City - County Health Department regarding the Tri- State Water Quality Council report which outlined the threats to both groundwater and surface waters in the Inland Northwest from rapid residential development in rural areas. 11. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Coastal Services Center:“Virginia Research Project Takes Mangers to the Source”, July/August 2004 http://www.csc.noaa.gov/magazine/2004/04/virginia.html “Is the pollution that close shellfish beds coming from humans or animals? If the source is a septic system there may be additional bacteria or viruses that could make people sick.” Recently the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation through its Coastal Resources Management Program completed the study, “The Impact of Onsite Wastewater Systems on Water Quality in Coastal Regions.” That study used fluorescent dyes to identify leachates from improperly functioning onsite wastewater systems (OWS). The study was led by Dr. Charles Hagedorn, Professor, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Of the study results, Dr. Bob Croonenberghs, Director of the Virginia Department of Health, Division of Shellfish Sanitation stated: “I think what Dr. Hagedorn has shown us is there is a potential for more of an impact (from septic systems) than we had really realized there may be.” 12. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Coastal Services Center: “Wastewater: The Hidden Threat of Our Nation’s Changing Shoreline”, May/June 2004 http://www.csc.noaa.gov/magazine/2004/03/wastewater.html cited 01/07 Much of the nation’s shoreline is changing. Small beach cottages are often being replaced with “megamansions” which accommodate more people who are used to using such water intensive amenities as dishwashers, ice makers and sprinklers. Most homeowners care more about the design and comfort of the new homes and typically give little thought to the water going down the drain. This forgotten wastewater often is flowing to the same septic system that previously served the older, more modest cottage. “If an overloaded septic system malfunctions, there is a potential hazard that harmful bacteria in the runoff could contaminate drinking water wells, estuarine water and edible shellfish.” 13. National Resource Defense Council: “Testing the Waters - A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches - Sources of Beachwater Pollution”, July 2006 “Dwellings built near the coast may be equipped with underground septic systems, which if not sited, built and maintained properly, can leach wastewater into coastal recreational waters. Homeowners often do not adequately maintain their septic systems and there is no federal regulatory program to control waste from septic systems. Local governments and states rarely inspect septic systems sufficiently to prevent such failures. Fecal matter from malfunctioning or overloaded septic systems can contaminate bathing beaches. Runoff can also carry bacteria from failing septic systems far from the shore into streams that empty into bays near beaches.” The National Resources Defense Council states that most beach closings and advisories are based on monitoring that detects elevated levels of bacteria which enter coastal waters from discharges of untreated or partially treated wastes from sewage treatment plants or sanitary sewers, from septic system failures and from stormwater runoff. In order of impact the NRDC states that “sewage pollution is the second largest cause of beach closures.” 14. Natural Resources Protective Association, Staten Island New York, “Coastal Issues” www.nrpa.com/issues.htm “Water pollution continues to deprive coastal economics of millions of dollars that might otherwise be generated by tourism, fishing, and wildlife watching along America’s waterways.” Coastal waters are being inundated by wave of land-based pollution. Pathogens (such as bacteria and viruses), toxic chemicals, nitrogen, and other contaminants that are dumped into coastal waters as a result of rampant development, agriculture and forestry practices, storm drains, malfunctioning septic systems, and other sources are impairing our nation’s beach waters and threatening the health of our nation’s coasts. 15. Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, OceanLink, “Victoria’s Raw Sewage” http://www.oceanlink.island.net/youth%20forums/nov%2013%20to%2018%202003/soo ke%20sewage/raw%20sewage.html Sewage treatment in the City of Victoria is non-existent. Raw sewage dumped directly into the Strait of Juan de Fuca has had serious negative effects on the regional coastal environment. In 2001 the federal minister of Canada exercises his powers under the Canadian Environmental Act and ordered the City to reduce its discharge of toxic and organic pollutants to the marine environment. In response to the minister’s order the City has considered installing new on-site septic systems where adequate land can be found. In its search for alternatives it identified the following negative factors associated with on-site solutions. “Septic Systems - Cons: • Septic fields are basically dead zones because (automobile) driving and tree growth causes damage to the system. • “Out of sight, out of mind” feeling towards septic systems. Owners often forget about their systems because they can’t see them. • Owners have to be careful as to what they flush. Certain items such as diapers, tampons, bandages, condoms and dental floss can clog a strainer causing a backup and wastewater to flood on to the lawn. • If the tank is not pumped regularly, sludge will back up and cause flooding. • An overly full tank may cause the sewage to travel back up the pipes and into the home. • Old tanks quickly become leaky and fall below standards. • In Courtenay, a small coastal community much like Sooke, 50% of septic systems were in a failing or pre-failing condition. • 24,700 acres of British Columbia shellfish gathering grounds were shut down as a result of contamination from septic effluent.” 16. North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve, Science for Coastal living Series, No. 1, “Septic Systems in Coastal NC” http://www.ncnerr.org/ccs/publications/septic_brochure.pdf “Why should you be concerned about septic systems? When septic systems are designed, constructed and maintained properly, they are an effective method of treating and disposing of household wastewater in coastal North Carolina. In contract, poorly planned and maintained septic systems can fail and contribute to nonpoint source pollution and public health concerns.” Failures may result in many negative impacts, including: • Nutrient loading of our coastal and estuarine waters • Shellfish closures due to fecal coliform inputs • Groundwater contamination • Public health problems • Expensive repairs and property damage 17. North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T University Cooperative Extension Service: Coast*A*Syst North Carolina, “Improving Septic System Maintenance in Coastal Communities”; http://www.soil.ncsu.edu/assist/cas/septic/index.htm “Out of sight and out of mind is what happens in most cases with septic systems until problems occur. However, failing septic systems are more than a nuisance that are a health hazard and can cause significant problems in the coastal environment.” “One of the easiest ways to protect coastal waters from pollution is to check and maintain your septic system. This will also help your investment in your coastal home.” The North Carolina Coast*A*Syst program is a series of publications that are designed to help property owners in becoming a good coastal environmental stewards and at the same time protect the health and well being of their families. 18. Santa Cruz County, California, Environmental Health Service: “How Septic Systems Don’t Work” http://sccounty01.co.santa-cruz.ca.us/eh/sewage_disposal/ehseptic.htm “As a septic leachfield ages, the soil surfaces in the leaching device become clogged with an organic scum layer which limits the ability of the sewage to soak into the soil. This clogging process usually takes place over a period of 10 - 40 years and works from the bottom of the trench up to the top.” This publication by the Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Service discusses in detail some of the factors that contribute to septic system failure or improper function. Some of the factors include age, poor maintenance, overloading, high groundwater, poor surface drainage, clay soils, sandy soils and steep slopes and cuts. 19. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, Ocean & Coastal Resource Management: Planning & Technical Assistance, “Septic System Planning and Maintenance” http://www.scdhec.net/environment/ocrm/plan_tech/septics.htm “In fact, 10 - 30% of septic systems fail annually.” “Out of sight, out of mind is the attitude most people have when it comes to their septic system. The lack of routine maintenance can often result in less than desirable circumstances such as sewage backing up into your house, seeping into your yard, or polluting ground and surface waters. The three most important health reasons for maintaining your septic system area: • The health of your pocket: Poor maintenance results in failed systems requiring repair or replacement which can run into the thousands of dollars. • The health of your family, community and the environment: Untreated sewage contains disease-causing bacteria and viruses as well as unhealthy amounts of nitrate and other chemicals. Failed systems can release contaminants into wells, groundwater and surface water where people swim and get their drinking water. • The health of the economy: Contamination in surface bodies of waters from failed septic systems pollutes water supplies, causes closure of shellfish beds and recreational areas and creates offensive odors. Subsequently quality of life, recreational opportunities, and tourism will decline along with property values and economic vitality of the area. 20. ThriftyFun.com: “Septic System Failure”, http://www.thriftyfun.com/tf611337.tip.html “Most septic systems will fail sometime. These systems are designed to have a lifetime of 20 to 30 years, under the best conditions.” ThriftyFun.com is a website dedicated to gardening, arts and crafts and frugal living. 21. Tippecanoe County , Indiana, “Sewage Disposal” http://www.tippecanoe.in.gov/health/division.asp?fDD=15-107 “Is your septic system failing? Septic system owners should be alert to the following warning signs that could indicate a possible failing septic system: • Slowly draining sinks and toilets • Gurgling sounds in the plumbing • Plumbing backups • Sewage odors in the house or yard • Ground wet or mushy underfoot • Tests showing the presence of bacteria in the well water “None of these warning signs can be considered a sure indication that a system has failed, but the appearance of one or more of them should prompt homeowners to have their systems inspected. Septic system failures also can occur without any of these warning signals.” “Consequences associated with failing septic systems”: • Money: Failing septic systems are expensive to repair or replace. • Health of your family: When septic systems fail, inadequately treated household wastewater is released into the environment. Any contact with untreated human waste can pose significant health risks. • Value of your home: Failed septic systems can cause property values to decline. Sometimes a building permit cannot be issued or you may not be able to sell your home until your septic system is functioning properly. 22. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Coastal Water Factsheets, “Estuaries and your Coastal Watershed”, http://www.epa.gov?owow/oceans /factsheets/fact5.html Estuaries are an important component of the complex and dynamic coastal watershed. The economy of many coastal areas relies on the natural beauty and bounty of estuaries. When those natural resources are imperiled so are the livelihoods of many people who live and work along the coast. As population grows the demands imposed on estuarine resources increase and protecting these valuable resources for all their natural economic and aesthetic values becomes even more important. Estuaries are often known as bays, lagoons, harbors, inlets or sounds and provide a number of very valuable function. • Estuaries are critical to the survival of tens of thousands of birds, mammals, shellfish, fish and other wildlife. • The wetlands bordering many estuaries protect water quality by filtering pollutants from runoff, dissipate storm surges and store flood waters. • Estuaries are often sources of recreation and educational activities. They can provide boating, fishing, swimming and bird watching opportunities. • Estuaries often have high commercial values wherein they serve as nursery grounds for two-thirds of the nation’s commercial fish and shellfish. “Excessive nutrients from sources such as failing septic tanks, sewage treatment plants, storm runoff ... and contaminated runoff from fertilized farms and yards or from animal operations can adversely affect estuarine systems.” “Pathogens from inadequately treated sewage released into estuaries by faulty or leaky septic systems and sewage treatment plants, runoff from urban areas and animal operations ... can pose health threats to swimmers, divers, and seafood consumers.” 23. The Washington Post, Rob Stein, “Medical Breakthrough? The Laurels Go to Sewers”, January 22, 2007 “What was the most important medical breakthrough in the last 167 years? According to a poll by the British Medical Journal, the answer is: Sewers.” To mark a redesign of the prestigious medical journal, the editors decided to poll readers about what they considered the greatest medical milestone since 840, the year the forerunner of the journal started publishing. More than 11,000 readers responded, and sanitation won with 1,795 votes. London was one of the first modern cities to improve public sanitation after John Snow showed that cholera was spread by water, and Edwin Chadwick came up with the idea of sewage disposal and piping water into homes. “The general lesson which still holds is that passive protection against health hazards is often the best way to improve population health,” said Johan Mackenbach of Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, who nominated sanitation. 24. University of Washington Sea Grant: Ecosystem Health, “Health Hazards Associated With Sewage System Failure” http://www.wsg.washington.edu/research/ecohealth/articles/hazards.html “An on-site sewage treatment system is an effective method for waste disposal only when it is maintained properly. Some experts estimate that 50% of the on-site system failures are due to human error.” Fecal contamination has already resulted in the closure or restriction of harvests on 40% of Washington state’s commercial shellfish beds. The Pacific Coast Oyster Growers Association estimates the Washington state aquaculturists could double their production of oysters, clams and mussels in Puget Sound if their closed beds were reopened. Traditionally, pollutant discharges from municipal sewage treatment plants have been the culprits in shellfish closures. According to the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority there is a growing number of shellfish closures from non-point sources such as poor animal keeping practices, sewage discharged from boats and increasingly from failed septic tanks and drainfields. According to the Washington State Department of Health “one of the best ways to avoid septic system failure is to pump septic tanks regularly. When solids build up they can back up into the plumbing causing toilets to overflow and sinks to clog. An over-full tank also can push solids in the other direction clogging the perforated pipes leading to the drainfield and the drainfield itself. When the drainfield soils are plugged they are unable to properly treat the wastewater causing contamination of the surrounding environment.” WDH recommends pumping most septic tanks every three to five years depending on the size to minimize system failure.
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