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Septic Failures Haunt Other States

Septic Failures Haunt Other States
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution      

An E. coli scare that cleared suburban Detroit beaches in the mid-1990s was blamed partly on failing septic systems.

Now, Macomb County, Mich., home of Lake St. Clair, requires septic tanks to be inspected and pumped every time a house is sold. In the first year of requirements, the county health department found about 14 percent -- roughly 85 of the 600 tanks inspected -- weren't working properly. Failing septic systems can leak sewage into lakes and rivers and contaminate the groundwater that supplies wells.

An environmental advocacy group's report pointed to septic tanks as the source of fecal coliform -- bacteria that can indicate the presence of sewage -- in Naples Bay in Florida in the early 1980s. As a result, Collier County built sewer systems to more than 10,000 houses that had been on septic tanks.

From Pennsylvania to Minnesota, communities have faced septic-failure crises -- or are trying to ward them off.  Some state and local governments have enacted laws requiring regulation of septic tanks and, in some cases, mandatory maintenance by homeowners.

Georgia and most of its counties are not among them. Although the region leads large metro areas nationwide in the percentage of homes on septic tanks, they are unregulated and largely uncounted. Homeowners aren't required to ensure the sludge in their 1,000- or 1,500-gallon tanks is pumped out regularly.

Homeowners near Chesapeake Bay in Virginia must pump their tanks every five years. North Carolina requires pumping. Three counties outside Denver require that tanks be inspected and pumped once every four years.

Homeowners footed much of the bill for cleaning up septic messes around Lake St. Clair. But the E. coli outbreak raised awareness, and Michigan voters in 2002 approved a 10-year, $1 billion bond initiative to improve water quality. Up to $100 million can be used as low-interest loans to fix failing septic systems or extend sewer lines, said Ted Starbuck, senior environmental planner for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

In addition, Macomb County hired a prosecuting attorney to go after water quality violators, including homeowners who don't fix failing septic tanks, said Elwin Coll, who directs Macomb's environmental health services. Since 1998, attorney Mark Richardson has taken about 30 homeowners accused of septic tank violations to court. He thinks it's had an impact.

"The E. coli counts in the area where the health department has been working have actually started to drop," Richardson said.

Widespread septic system failures across the country generally have happened two to three decades after major growth spurts that put thousands of homes on tanks. Metro Atlanta -- which has an estimated 400,000 septic tanks in the ground, many installed in the past 20 years -- could face a similar crisis, public health officials and community development experts say.

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