Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Septic Systems Loom as Source of Contamination

By Duane Craig

Septic Contamination image courtesy of MSN
While it is industry that garners many headlines for contamination and pollution, individual property owners are also serious polluters on their own, and major polluters in groups. Perhaps one of the largest groups of polluters is the group with onsite septic systems.
Onsite septic systems can take many forms just depending upon the local soil, water table and regulations, or lack of regulations. When these onsite systems are well-designed, well-maintained and spaced far enough apart they serve the landowner for many years with little adverse effect on the environment. One catch is that many of these systems were designed with land sales in mind and so they were allowed to be grouped in higher densities than would have been optimum. Another issue that is currently cropping up is the legacy of unregulated systems that weren’t installed according to any standards, other than the most expedient and cheapest at the time.

Septic Contamination

Clear Lake, Iowa, is now trying to address onsite septic systems that are not certified. Fixing these problems can be costly for communities. In the Clear Lake case, those with uncertified systems will be given $3,000 to upgrade to new systems that are compliant. In Clear Lake, it is not just the government that’s coming up with the money, but rather a partnership between it and The Association for the Preservation of Clear Lake.

Virginia Tech published the results of a study on its Web site that explored the pollutants of septic systems and how well septic systems and the soil handle those pollutants. Under dry conditions the systems performed better since the soil wasn’t saturated from rainwater and runoff. Still, the systems studied only reduced pollutants up to 90 percent with some, such as phosphate only being reduced by 25 to 50 percent. Some of the pollutants from septic systems are dangerous for surface waters. Nitrogen and phosphorus both encourage algal blooms in lakes, streams and rivers, and when these plants are in abundance they reduce the oxygen levels in the water and fish and other lifeforms living in the water begin to die. By some accounts 50 percent of septic systems don’t function properly. In high densities that can spell trouble for surface waters.
In Maryland, the governor recently signed an executive order establishing funding for a study of how high density septic systems are polluting Chesapeake Bay. Land developers of course would prefer not to have limits on the number of systems allowed, but the results of this study could lend credibility to legislation that will limit septic systems.

Several places in Florida already have serious problems with septic systems especially because of the natural high water table. Coastal locations around the country are also increasingly concerned about onsite septic system pollution.

Just as industry has its legacy of contamination, so too do homeowners and landowners. Many people put anything into their septic systems that will fit down the drain, including paints, solvents and other pollutants. Anything other than human waste decreases the system’s performance. When it comes to onsite septic systems, expect to see a continuing battle between people who see land strictly from a money perspective, and those who see it as just one part of the whole ecosystem.

No comments: