Health workers push for septic tank regs

Friday, July 11, 2003

Frustrated with their inability to enforce septic tank regulations at the local level, Cape Girardeau County Health Department officials took an official step Thursday in flushing out unqualified septic tank installers.

Health officials outlined a draft of septic tank regulations to the county commission that would force installers to be trained and licensed before they hook up a septic system. The goal is to prevent homeowners and their neighbors from putting up with a leaking septic system that was installed improperly.

The ordinance would also give the health department the ability to revoke licenses or suspend them if installers do not conform to regulations.

The septic system issue that becomes more and more important as subdivisions pop up and the population increases outside the city limits of Cape Girardeau and Jackson. The county issued 81 permits in 2002, up nine from 2001.

Currently, the county can enforce regulations dealing with a homeowner's refusal to fix a septic problem, but it has no regulations it can enforce dealing with installers.

The draft submitted by the county health department Thursday still needs to be polished, particularly in the form of fines and punishment, prosecutor Morley Swingle said.

But the commission agreed with the gist of the draft and told the department officials to continue refining the ordinance.

Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said there have been a few instances over the years where the county's hands have been tied concerning sewage leakage on a neighbor's property.

The proposed ordinance would apply to all properties needing on-site wastewater systems generating 3,000 gallons or less, which would include septic systems for residences and some small businesses. Bigger systems are handled by the Department of Natural Resources.

License needed

Perhaps the most important language in the 16-page draft deals with the installer's license.

Should the ordinance pass, any person constructing, modifying or repairing sewage disposal systems would need a license.

A license would be obtained after taking a state certified training course or a course offered by the county.

Ann Elledge is a supervisor for the Environmental Section of the county health department.

She said she hopes the ability to suspend and revoke licenses will help keep installers in check and help protect property owners.

"There are a lot of renegade installers who don't go through the health department," she said. "They install systems and two to three years later, it's surfacing and it was because they didn't get with us to make sure they were doing things the right way."

Elledge also said that many lending agencies require loan evaluations, which include septic tank inspection.

"If homeowners don't have regulations that meet the health department requirements, you won't get your loan," she said. "That means either the homeowner has to fix it and bring it up to standard or take it off the cost of the house."

Bill Bonney with Dutch Enterprises said installing septic systems is a very complicated process and sometimes, even when installed perfectly, don't work right.

"I think county health department is right on by regulating these systems," he said. "I think people like us should be inspected. I'm very much for that. I don't think when it comes to this, there can be any shortcuts."

Minor repairs

After some discussion at Thursday's meeting, commissioners and health department officials said they would look at changing the language so that a homeowner could try to make minor repairs to his own system without getting a license.

Elledge said the county could provide a temporary license for some of the smaller jobs and the county would give some technical support to those projects.

Bobby Brown works for Wilbert Concrete Products, which manufactures, but does not install, septic tanks. He said it's a good idea to force installers to get licenses.

"People need to be licensed to do that," he said. "There are a lot of things that go into this that a normal person doesn't know. I think anyone who has anything to do with septics or cesspools should be licensed."

Another major regulation included in the proposed ordinance would force builders to think ahead. Homes generally outlast their septic tanks, which have an average life of about 25 years.

The ordinance includes a requirement that for new home construction to be approved, builders must show an alternate site where a replacement septic system could be installed.

Should the ordinance pass, the health department will reap some financial benefit. Currently, the department issues state sewage permits for $90 and the county keeps $60 of that. The county is not reimbursed at all if the health department does not do a final inspection.

By controlling the permits locally, the county will receive the full $90 for every permit issued.


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