By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Local septic systems are causing a mess, but it's more about paperwork and protocols than sewage.
Starting Feb. 10, the Environmental Protection Agency will require a general permit to install any discharging system emptying into any waters of the United States. The permit sets discharge limits and requires periodic inspection, monitoring and reporting. The new regulations do not impact homeowners using sewer lines.
Joe Dreyer, who owns Dreyer Construction in Quincy, said the new regulation could impact a home that discharges into a dry creek bed in a backyard miles away from those larger bodies of water. He said the loose definition eventually will cause problems for any filter that will be built or replaced.
"What's happened is that they're trying to do away with surface discharge, because (the EPA is) saying it's polluting our waters," Dreyer said. "What the EPA tries to say is if we get a six-inch rain, it's going to reach waters of the United States, but it's going to be so diluted that it doesn't really matter."
Dreyer anticipates the permit itself won't cost the homeowner much, but the soil inspections and chemical testing necessary to obtain it could add up to hundreds of dollars. The alternative is to buy a non-discharging system, which Dreyer said costs 25 percent to 30 percent more than the discharging sand filter systems typically used in Adams County.
The EPA's stance is a surface discharge system poses a threat to human health and the environment. The agency noted that drinking sewage-contaminated water has been cited as the principal cause for most waterborne illness outbreaks, and case studies have documented human illness due to exposure to pathogens found in sewage.
The new regulations state a homeowner must first determine if a zero discharging system is feasible. The Illinois Department of Health reports that 72,815 private surface discharging systems were installed between 1996 and 2011. That figure is 42.4 percent of the total number of private sewage disposal systems in Illinois.
Tony Dede, chief environmental sanitarian for the Adams County Health Department, said only larger facilities that discharged more than 1,500 gallons per day, such as commercial buildings or apartment buildings with multiple units, needed a permit before the regulations were enacted.
Dede said Adams County homeowners typically use sand filters where conventional septic tank or absorption field systems have failed. These systems work well in sites with high groundwater or poor soils. Under the new regulations, these practices are not being eliminated but highly regulated. Deed said qualifying for this permit under EPA standards would be difficult.
The new regulation initially only impacts developers and people building new homes.
Dede advised that homeowners have soil tested and consider where the discharging system is going before deciding where to place the structure.
"If anybody is building a house, I recommend they call us first before scooping up a single shovel of dirt," Dede said.
Discharging systems installed before Feb. 9 will not require a permit, but once those systems fail, Dede said a homeowner may have to buy a non-discharging system if they do not qualify for a permit. He recommends having the septic system pumped once it is three years old, then determining a schedule for future maintenance.
"If you already have a home that's on a septic system, protect it at all cost," Dede said. "Do every bit of maintenance that you can to keep the system in the best shape possible."