Septic systems raise health concerns

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 25, 2006

By Kari Lucin, staff writer

Septic systems across the Shell Rock River Watershed that don’t have permits or are more than 25 years old will be checked for compliance with state and county regulations once the financing plans have passed. Homeowners whose septic systems don’t comply could be fined up to $500 a month.

The watershed district’s drive to fix failing septic systems is motivated by public health concerns as well as environmental concerns, said Watershed Outreach Director Cathy Rofshus. Keeping raw sewage from drinking water has been a major problem in some areas.

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Home and business owners may have noncompliant systems for a number of reasons, Rofshus said.

Some rural homeowners may not know they have basement toilets that discharge sewage into ditches, field tiles or lakes, Rofshus said. Often, when a second toilet is put into the basement of a home with a perfectly functioning septic system, the second toilet isn’t hooked up to the system. Instead, the sewage runs into the water table without being treated.

&8220;If you have sewage surfacing in your yard, we have a concern,&8221; Rofshus said.

State laws prohibiting the use of straight pipes will go into effect August 1, fining owners of polluting straight pipe systems $500 a month.

&8220;We probably have hundreds of homes flushing sewage directly into surface waters every day,&8221; Rofshus said.

Homeowners should also have their septic systems pumped every one to three years to function properly, she said. Solid waste settles to the bottom of the septic tank, and liquid waste slowly drains into the soil, where it gets absorbed by the plants above. But the solid waste still needs to be piped out of the tank, or it will plug the drainfield, sending wastewater to aquifers, drinking water, ditches or surface water.

Very old homes might still have cesspools, concrete tanks without solid bottoms that discharge sewage without any treatment, Rofshus said. Cesspools are illegal, but homeowners may not realize they even have one.

Even putting a deck or a paved driveway over a septic system’s drainage field can prevent the system from working properly. Cars and other heavy vehicles should never be parked on top of a drainage field either.

&8220;Mother Nature can sort it out, but you’ve got to design it so it has the time and place to do it,&8221; Rofshus said.

Replacing a septic system could cost over $10,000, and getting one checked costs between $200 and $500. For people with bad credit who can’t get loans or have heavy debt loans, coming up with the money can be tough.

&8220;In rural areas, when your septic system breaks down, you have to pay for that out of your pocket,&8221; Rofshus said.

Freeborn County will offer loans of up to $15,000 for fixing failing systems to anyone who cannot get money elsewhere. That way homeowners whose septic systems are found to be malfunctioning or draining into water bodies will be able to pay for fixing them.

Anyone worried that they might have a straight pipe or a noncompliant septic system should contact the watershed district at 377-5785 and ask for a pamphlet about septic system evaluation.

Freeborn County Environmental Services, at 377-5186,

offers a septic system owner’s guide for anyone who wants to know how septic systems work.