Lawmakers seek to regulate septic systems but struggle for funding

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By JEREMY WAHR
Capital News Service

LANSING — A pair of bills that would require the inspection and possible replacement of private septic tanks to improve the safety of drinking water faces an uphill battle.

They would establish statewide standards to prevent faulty septic systems from contaminating drinking water. They were introduced by Reps. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, and  James Lower, R-Cedar Lake.

Michigan is the only state without uniform standards for the systems that are used primarily by rural residents who do not have access to sewers, advocates say.

“Numerous researchers have pointed out the need for reform, noting that our lakes and streams are contaminated, and this has directly been linked to leaking septic systems,” Joseph Sullivan, an aide to Hammoud, wrote in an email.

But some groups are concerned with how the bills would affect poor people. They question how the inspections and septic upgrades would be funded.

“The effects would be protecting groundwater and the environment, which is great for public health,” Meghan Swain, executive director for the Lansing-based Michigan Association for Local Public Health,  wrote in an email. “But how we get there is a different story. There is concern that grandma won’t be able to afford a replacement system. So, who pays for it then?”

The proposal’s drawbacks are financial, said Swain, whose group opposes it.

“One main reason is that it doesn’t come with any money,” she said. “We support the spirit of the legislation and believe in septic inspections, but not as these bills present.”

The plan is to work with nonprofit organizations, the federal government and other organizations to find funds to help owners fix defective systems, Sullivan said.

The Michigan Association of Counties has not taken an official position on the bills, said Deena Bosworth, director of governmental affairs for that group. But some counties oppose the bills because they would do away with pre-sale inspections of private septic systems.

These local point-of-sale ordinances require sewer inspections before selling a home.

“The bills prohibited point-of-sale ordinances, which counties adopted and used to inspect septic systems at the point-of-sale,” Bosworth said. “The bill said they couldn’t have these anymore, and prohibited the local units of government from being able to enforce that ordinance.”

Other counties have financial concerns.

”The data (collection) and the routine inspections would have put a significant burden on local public health departments,” Bosworth said.

The bills face several hurdles, including finding out how many Michiganders have septic systems. The state doesn’t track that, Sullivan said.

“We would also be working with local health departments to establish standards compliant with the statewide standards and their communities,” Sullivan said. “Before any of this can happen, the legislation would have to pass.”

The bills were referred to the House Committee on Natural Resource last spring, and behind-the-scenes revisions are being made,  Sullivan said.

Both Sullivan and Bosworth said that without clear funding, the bills may not be approved by the committee.