BC Democrat Guest Column – August 2019

Septic Summit

Mark your calendars, September 3rd from 5:00pm to 8:00pm at the Brown County Fairgrounds.  The Septic Summit will bring equipment, service providers and experts together at one place for information exchange for all of us.  There will also be fun and prizes, maybe food and entertainment!

A Community Needs and Assessment study was completed by the Brown County Community Foundation (BCCF) and published in 2008.  The BCCF study included a written survey that questioned what the County’s residents considered the most pressing concerns.  The number 1 concern was understandable: Jobs.  However, the number 2 concern was: Effectiveness of Septics and Sewers.  When asked to prioritize their issues, 61% of the citizens said their #1 priority was “to improve the sewer and water systems”, and with good reason. 

The need for improvement is grounded on scientific basis.  Household wastewater contains disease causing bacteria and viruses and high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. When residential septic systems are well designed, maintained and working properly, they will remove most of the pollutants found in typical household wastewater.  However, sewage from poorly operating septic systems can cause groundwater contamination and spread disease in humans and animals.   The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for our nations’ waterways because improperly treated sewage poses the risk of contaminating nearby surface waters threatening swimmers with various infectious diseases, from eye and ear infections to gastrointestinal illness and hepatitis.  The Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) states that several diseases are caused by bacteria and parasites found in sewage or sewage contaminated water.  These include campylobacteriosis, the most common diarrheal illness in America. Another disease is Cryptosporidiosis caused by a microscopic parasite and is the most common waterborne disease in the United States.  And, a disease of particular concern to young children and the elderly is caused by a strain of Escherichia coli.  E. coli bacteria is found in water contaminated with feces from warm-blooded animals, including humans.

The next year (2009) after the above BCCF study, Brown County Vision 2020 Plan was released. The Brown County Vision 2020 Plan had similar findings as the BCCF Community Needs study.  The 2020 Plan concluded that clean air and water, including our streams and lakes, are health priorities for Brown County.  The 2020 Plan matched the concerns of the BCCF study stating that 52% of our citizens said that the County needed to “promote the County’s environmental aspects”.  Effective water supply, onsite wastewater treatment, and sewer systems are major parts of this calling and need to be developed and maintained. 

That was 10 years ago!  Very little practical work has been done until recent action this past year.  The Board of Health is reevaluating and updating the county’s septic ordinance.  The Brown County Regional Sewer District and the Helmsburg Regional Sewer District are undertaking a regionalization study funded by a grant from the Indiana State Revolving Fund to examine the feasibility of combining services.  The Brown County Health Department has been actively researching their files of residential septic records. To date, nearly 1900 property files with homes have been reviewed.  Results are indicating that nearly 60% of properties have septic records on file, but roughly 40% of the households do not have records of septic systems on file at the Health Department.  But, with the Septic Summit being planned for September 3rd at the Fairgrounds, individual homeowners can take charge of their own impact on health and water pollution concerns!

A septic system is an individual wastewater treatment system that uses soil to treat domestic wastewater.  Most septic systems have two main parts, a holding tank (septic tank) and an absorption, or drain field (lateral field).  In Brown County, several types of onsite septic systems are used, including conventional lateral field systems, mound systems, sand-lined filters, drip distribution, and aerobic treatment units.  Septic tanks are buried near the house and are water-tight containers typically made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. Sewage from the home enters the septic tank where heavier solids (sludge) settle out and scum (oils, grease, and other floatable stuff) rises to the surface. Anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that does not require oxygen) degradation occurs in the sludge layer.  The water between the scum and solids layer is called effluent and leaves the septic tank and flows into the lateral field.  The lateral field distributes the effluent so that it trickles down into the soil.  Naturally occurring bacteria in the soil further consumes harmful bacteria in the effluent and eventually “cleans” the wastewater.  If a septic system is not functioning properly and needs repaired or replaced, it is likely to be discharging untreated sewage onto one’s own yard, directly into the groundwater, or into a nearby waterway or stream.  An unusable septic system or one in disrepair will lower your property value, pollute the environment, and potentially pose a costly legal liability.

Onsite septic systems fail for a variety of reasons.  Most septic systems, however, fail because of inappropriate design or poor maintenance. Soil-based systems that have drain fields (fingers or lateral fields) may have been installed at home sites with inadequate soils, excessive slopes, or high groundwater tables.  These conditions can cause hydraulic failures and contamination of nearby water sources.  Another cause might be failure to perform routine maintenance, such as pumping the septic tank generally every three (3) to five (5) years.  This lack of maintenance can cause solids to build up in the tank, migrate into the drainage field, and clog the system.

Symptoms of failure may or may not be easily identified.  Of course, if there is a strong septic odor around the septic tank or the lateral field, that’s a dead give-away.  Other obvious issues include pooling muddy, smelly water around the septic system, bright green, spongy grass over the lateral field, especially during dry weather, or wastewater backing up into household drains.  According to soil scientists, biologists, engineers and other environmental professionals at Purdue University’s Extension Service, it is important to note that older failing septic systems in Indiana are not “grandfathered” as safe.  They are a hazard and must be dealt a solution.

INSERT graphic from EPA of a Septic System

The Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) is the regulating body that is responsible for the framing of the rules pertaining to home sewage disposal.  Based on these regulations, the Brown County Health Department (BCHD), headed by the County’s Health Officer, is in charge of administering the rules and regulations and issuing permits for the testing, installation and repairs of septic systems.  The homeowner or his/her authorized agent must apply for and obtain a permit for installation of a sewage disposal system before the construction of any new home.  This same requirement applies to reconstruction or repairs of an existing system.  The application has to be made on a prescribed form and contain all necessary information as required by the County’s Health Officer. 

By regulation, before issuing a permit, an onsite soil evaluation test must be performed to determine if the soil is suitable for construction and operation of a septic system.  Soil classification is determined by the US Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation System.  The importance of proper soil classification should not be underestimated.  If the soil is inaccurately classified, it could cause unnecessary delays and expense to the homeowner.  One of the main advantages of a professional soil evaluation over a percolation test (a traditional method of testing septic field areas) is that layers within the soil that severely limit the function of septic systems can be defined. These limiting layers include bedrock, the seasonal high water table, dense soils with slow permeability, and sandy or gravelly soil with very rapid permeability. The State of Indiana Code specifies that at least two feet of separation should exist between the bottom of the septic field and groundwater.  Installation of curtain drains, importation of fill material, or use of alternative sewage disposal systems are options that can be used where limiting layers occur at shallow depths.

Poor soil conditions with limitations such as slow permeability, shallow till, and seasonal high water tables combined with density of development, small lot size and configuration, and the use of private individual water wells, are critical concerns.  Public Health is at stake as well as decreased property values.  Information and help about the physical limitations of lot size, slope of your property, soil issues and other concerns will be available at the Septic Summit. 

You can explore options and get information on the correct answers to your own wastewater treatment needs.  Experts, suppliers, service providers, soil scientists, and neighbors will be at your “disposal”.  And, food, prizes, and entertainment will make the Septic Summit the place to be on Tuesday evening, September 3rd at the Brown County Fairgrounds. 

Clint Studabaker

Retired Professional Engineer,

Volunteer member of Brown County Regional Sewer Board

BS Civil Engineering, Purdue University,

Executive MBA, Northern Illinois University,

Master of Arts in Teaching, National-Louis University,

Extensive experience with multiple Fortune 500 companies in environmental engineering, project management, business integration, strategic planning, and regulatory affairs.

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