Sharon Burton won't open the windows of her rural Cape Girardeau County home to the cool, fall breezes because she can't stand the stench from her neighbor's faulty septic system that has polluted her yard with sewage.
"It's raw," she told the county commission at a public hearing in Jackson on Thursday. Burton was voicing support for a proposed county law that would give the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center more control in regulating septic systems.
The regulations would force system installers and homeowners to obtain licenses and permits, or else face up to a year in the county jail and a $1,000 fine.
Twenty-five county residents and septic tank installers crowded into the county commission chambers to voice their views on the proposed ordinance. Several, like Burton, urged the commission to enact the new rules.
Gerald Jones, presiding commissioner, said the county commission likely will vote on the proposed ordinance before the end of the month.
Jones said the measure is designed to protect homeowners throughout the county. "We don't want to have our environment soiled any more than it is," he said.
The county currently can enforce regulations dealing with homeowners who refuse to get a septic system fixed, but only the state can prosecute installers who perform shoddy work. The new measure would allow the county to prosecute installers who ignore the regulations.
The new law also would close a loophole that allows builders to sidestep state regulations. State law requires septic tanks to meet certain requirements, but only if the property is less than three acres.
Currently, any county lot of more than three acres with less than 3,000 gallons of sewage output daily is not being regulated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
The new county ordinance would require anyone building or repairing a septic system with less than 3,000 gallons output daily -- which includes all homes and some small businesses -- to meet local septic system regulations.
It can't come too soon for Burton.
She said the situation is so bad at her home near Burfordville, Mo., that a visitor recently "slipped and fell" on the oozing sewage in her yard.
She said she's seen other properties in the county plagued by poor septic systems.
The thousands of existing septic systems in the county would be allowed to remain. But if a a complaint is received about an existing system and it is found to be a "nuisance," then the property owner must obtain a sewage permit and the system must be brought up to the standards in county regulations, health officials said.
Sewage in creeks
Ken Kramer of Jackson, who installs septic tanks, told the commissioners he's seen instances where rural residents have simply funneled their sewage into creeks.
Kramer said regulations are needed to clean up the environment and preserve the county's natural beauty. "If that type of stuff is not changed, our great-grandchildren won't have anything," he said.
But some installers said contractors and rural residents won't like the proposed regulations.
"It's not going to be very popular," said Mike Reed of Jackson Plumbing Co.
Reed, a state-licensed installer, said rural residents view the issue the same way as planning and zoning, as an intrusion into their lives.
But Reed said he wants septic tanks to be installed properly. He suggested after the meeting that the county commission should look at requiring septic tanks to be installed by state-licensed contractors.
Some installers expressed concern that the proposed law could delay installation work while crews waited for heath inspectors to show up. County health officials said they don't expect such inspections will hamper building construction.
Ann Elledge, supervisor of environmental public health in the county health department, told those at the hearing that her agency would work with property owners and installers. "We are not going to be running people out of their homes," she said.
Elledge said the goal of the proposed regulations is to see that septic systems are installed properly in the first place so there aren't future sewage problems at homes and businesses.
The regulations would require installers to obtain county licenses at no charge. If the installer isn't registered with the state, he or she would have to attend an orientation session conducted by county health officials.
Licenses could be suspended or revoked for repeated violations. Homeowners could obtain temporary licenses to install septic systems on their own property. They won't be required to attend an orientation session, but the health department will provide guidance, Elledge said.
All septic system construction will be inspected by county health inspectors regardless of whether the work is done by professional installers or by homeowners.
Those putting in septic systems would have to obtain a construction permit from the county health office. The permit would cost $125, an increase over the current $90 fee but less than many first-class counties charge, officials said.
The county currently gets to keep $60 of the $90 with the rest of the fee going to the state. With the new permit fee, the county would keep the entire amount.