Some want Michigan to regulate septic tanks to protect water quality


The Michigan Environmental Council’s water policy director, Megan Tinsley. Image: Michigan Environmental Council

By Elijah Taub

Being a state with direct access to a lot of freshwater creates opportunities for housing, jobs and tourism.

However, the quality of Michigan’s water is threatened due to poorly maintained septic tanks, according to environmental advocates pushing for legislation to require periodic inspections of septic systems statewide.

Currently, it’s up to local governments whether to regulate septic systems and mandate inspections periodically or when property ownership changes.

Despite its vast network of rivers, streams and lakes, as well as groundwater, Michigan remains the only state without a statewide sanitary code, which would include septic systems.

That means that there is no state regulation for the inspections of septic tanks, so a system could be unchecked forever.

The Michigan Environmental Council’s water policy director, Megan Tinsley, said, “There could certainly be E. coli in sewage. If any septic system is leaking, it could be potentially infiltrating where someone’s well water is being collected.”

Drinking water is at risk because leaks from septic tanks get into the groundwater, which eventually puts sewage into the drinking water supply.

Two bills are pending that would address the problem of leaky septic systems. They are awaiting review by the House Committee on Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation.

If the legislation passes, there would be standards for new and existing septic systems that would require inspections at the time of sale in all counties.

Sponsors include Democratic Reps. Phil Skaggs of East Grand Rapids, Sharon McDonnell of Troy, Donavan McKinney of Detroit, Kara Hope of Holt, Carol Glanville of Walker, Joey Andrews of St. Joseph and Laurie Pohutsky of Livonia, who chairs the committee.

“We’re working on getting these bills passed,” Tinsley said. “Interest groups have come together such as public health departments, environmental groups and anyone who has a keen interest in these bills.”

Concerns about the legislation include the costs of staffing and facilities for the state and county health departments, she said.

“If there’s a proper way of doing this, I don’t see why not,” said Patrick Stewart, who owns property in Lewiston.

“It’s not like we have a lot of options to go to the bathroom up here,” he said.

Currently there is no statewide regulation of septic tank inspections. Some counties have created their own regulations. Also, some communities have passed ordinances that require septic tanks to be inspected during the selling process.

The Petoskey-based Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council has reported on the potential dangers of letting septic systems remain uninspected. One of its concerns is nutrients from the septic tanks that leak into groundwater.

“Having higher nutrient levels throws the ecosystem off, and it certainly impacts outdoor recreation,” Tinsley said.

Nutrients from septic tanks that go into the groundwater can seep into rivers and lakes, creating algae blooms. That significantly hinders the desire to be in the water, as well as activities such as fishing and canoeing.

Elijah Taub reports for Capital News Service

2 thoughts on “Some want Michigan to regulate septic tanks to protect water quality

  1. I see a boondoggle here. Someone either has no working familiarity with septic systems or is simply being disingenuous. All active septic systems get “inspected” every 3-7 years as they are serviced. A septic system either works or it doesn’t and a failed system is very obvious. What is confusing here are the comments about septic systems leaking into ground water. The very operation of a septic system requires the effluent to move from the holding tank, through a properly functioning drain field and then into the ground. A properly installed well or septic is always set far enough apart that septic effluent will not impact the well. In Michigan, neither of these systems can be installed without permit and inspection. While it’s true that there may be older abandoned systems that have not been inspected in some time, those systems would also not be presenting a problem to the groundwater since they’re not being used. This subject is much ado about nothing.

  2. Who is going to pay for these inspections? I’m retired on a fixed income and I don’t need anymore bills or taxes. No matter how you do it, we will end up paying for it outright or through more taxes. I pay to have my septic tank pumped. If there was a problem I would find out about it at that time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *