The Oakland County Board of Commissioners passage on November 9 of a resolution urging the Michigan legislature and state environment officials to pass a statewide septic code is an encouraging development in a decades-long effort to address a public health concern.
State environmental regulators estimate more than nine billion gallons of raw sewage from leaking septic systems are entering the state's surface waters each year, with roughly 10 percent of the estimated 1.3 million septic systems across the state currently failing.
Oakland County health officials say there are between 80,000 and 100,000 septic systems in the county. The majority of septic systems are located in the northern and western part of the county, including parts of Bloomfield Township. Yet, because of a lack of any statewide or local requirement to routinely inspect and inventory those systems, the exact number, location and condition of those underground septic systems aren't known.
Failing septics don't just create an unsightly mess – they pose serious health problems to drinking and surface water, including dysentery, meningitis, hepatitis, typhoid fever and other illnesses. Nitrates from failing septics pose particular threats to infants.
Of the 83 counties in Michigan, just 11 have regulations that require inspections of septic systems. Those that do typically require them only when a property is purchased. In Oakland County, only newer, advanced septic systems, not the more common systems that have been used for decades are required to be inspected annually. Most problems are only found after the health department receives residential complaints, well after sewage begins pooling and migrating off of a property.
While the percentage of septic systems in Oakland County may be lower than some out-state counties, researchers with Michigan State University in 2015, looking into fecal bacteria in 64 rivers in the state, found the highest amounts in counties with more than 1,600 septic systems.
Considering the health and environmental concern that raw sewage from septic systems can pose, one might be inclined to think that most states have laws and regulations on the books to protect the public — and they would be correct. In fact, every other state in the country has statewide septic inspection laws. Michigan is the only state in the nation that doesn't have a septic code, albeit, not for trying.
Since 2001, at least eight different proposals to address septic regulations have been pitched by state lawmakers. Both former governors Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder included statewide septic regulations as part of their agenda, evidence the measure has traditionally had bipartisan support. In fact, late Michigan Senator Patty Birkholz (R-Saugatuck) sponsored four bills between 2002 and 2010 to address leaking septic systems, none of which were ever voted out of committee.
More recently, bills introduced in the state legislature have been sponsored by Democratic lawmakers. While Republicans – who traditionally had been the party of conservationists – more often have stymied efforts to protect the environment. The trend extends to Oakland County, where all 11 Democrat county commissioners voted in favor of the resolution, with commissioner Shelly Goodman Taub (R-Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township) the sole GOP member to support the resolution pushing for a statewide septic code.
Oakland County's sanitary code was last updated in 2016, adding provisions to require advanced septic systems be inspected on an annual basis. Previous efforts by Republican and former Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John McCulloch to address septic systems didn't gain traction.
While the board of commissioner's resolution, which was introduced by freshman commissioner Penny Luebs (D-Clawson), is encouraging, we aren't exactly holding our collective breath that the Republican-controlled legislature will act. Instead, we believe commissioners should strike while the iron is hot and work to draft its own ordinance to step-up septic inspections on some regular basis.
Although we would prefer a statewide septic code, we encourage county commissioners to be proactive and work on a countywide septic ordinance that would, at a minimum, help to identify and locate failing septic systems.