Issues Of The Environment: Does Michigan Need A Statewide Code For Septic Systems?

Jul 28, 2021

Washtenaw County Environmental Health Director Kristen Schweighoefer
Credit Washtenaw County / washtenaw.org

Flooding, pollution, and overall water quality have dominated the news lately. While municipal water systems cover the majority of state residents, 35% operate on a septic system. Regulations and code varies from place to place, and many of the systems are aging and in deteriorating shape. WEMU's David Fair checked in with Washtenaw County environmental health director Kristen Schweighoefer to discuss whether more uniform codes and standards are needed.  


Overview

  • Michigan has between 1.3 and 1.4 million onsite septic systems and 35 percent of its residents rely on septic systems, according to EGLE. And though Michigan does not have a statewide code, there are local ordinances that relate to septic systems. 
  • Washtenaw County has an ongoing Time of Sale program that began in 2000. Within the first 18 months of the program, the county found that 18 percent of inspected septic systems were failing or inadequate. Faulty septic systems can discharge into stormwater, drains, surface water, or someone’s yard polluting the water with bacteria and other pathogens. Failure to properly maintain septic fields and systems can become a social justice concern when the polluted water travels far downstream from the source.
  • Two House Bills are being proposed to establish state standards that would delegate regulation and inspection of septic systems to EGLE. Similar bills have been attempted frequently over the years, but they failed due to pushback from property owners and conservation groups. Property owners argue that the average costs to bring a septic system up to the standard are costly and vary widely depending on the code, with many repairs in the 5 figure range. Right now, homeowners are required to cover septic repairs, but Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the MI Clean Water Plan last fall, which includes $35 million for a low-interest loan program for homeowners replacing failing septic systems.
  • Some conservation groups argue that a statewide code might lead to adoption of the lowest possible standard, rather than leading to improved water quality. Richard Bowman, Director of Policy for the Nature Conservancy, “All 83 Michigan Counties are under the jurisdiction of a county or regional health department and all have some type of septic permitting and management program.  Are they all as robust as we might like them to be?  No, but that is usually a case of limited resources and competing priorities, and simply passing a statewide code does not address those barriers.”
  • And climate change, while a concern for many people, is still a topic with many unanswered questions regarding its impact on septic systems. “Climate change is something we all have to keep in mind in the septic system industry, but it has the potential to impact us all differently across the U.S.,” Heger said. “There are concerns about more moisture and how that may impact soil treatment, but there is an added benefit of warmer soil which is beneficial for septic systems.
  • Kristen Schweighoefer, Environmental Health Director for Washtenaw County, acknowledges that COVID-19 sent septic code concerns to the backburner, but water quality is still a vital priority. Washtenaw County’s code has been more effective than statewide regulations in many states. She says, “...we have better protections/minimums than other states that do have a statewide code. One neighboring state allows a straight pipe to a ditch. But, the headline is not as catchy. Could our local minimums be improved? Sure. But just having a statewide code is no guarantee of that.”

Proposed House Bills to Create a Statewide Standard

In Michigan, with public health departments fully occupied with COVID-19, septic systems have been pushed back as a priority. But even before COVID-19, it wasn’t much of a priority in the Legislature, because the last time an attempt was made to enact statewide regulations for septic systems was 2018.

Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, and then-Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, introduced House Bills 5752 and 5753. The bills in question would have established state standards for septic systems, also known as “onsite wastewater systems,” and also have required regular inspections of those systems with the results of those inspections maintained by the then-Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Under the measures, a committee would have advised the DEQ, now the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, on standards. Both bills made it to the House Committee on Local Government before stalling in late 2018 and then going no further.

“In negotiations that’s where it fell apart,” Hammoud said. “Ultimately the differences stemmed from what would trigger an inspection of a septic tank. Is it an interval inspection system where every three years you have to have an inspection? Is it point of sale, you sell your house? Is it if there is a public health crisis, contamination of a nearby water system that would then trigger an inspection of all nearby septic tanks? Obviously every stakeholder group has their own differences of opinion as to what they prefer or not prefer for their members, and that is where the conversation unraveled.”

That point of contention seems characteristic of most of the discussions happening around a statewide code so far. “To some extent, individual property rights enter the picture,” said Larry Stephens, past president of the Michigan Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association. “There’s always some pushback there. And how that program is administered and who pays for it and how it gets done are large issues.”

Stephens, a professional engineer, is president of Stephens Consulting Services. What people do agree on, he says, is the need for better training and education and a statewide code that can give some assurance to people on quality control of industry workers like designers, contractors, regulators and operators of advanced treatment systems. What can go wrong with a septic system can vary a lot. Stephens listed a few examples. It might be that the septic tank itself is in poor condition. Or there might not be a drain field because it is an old property that predates the relevant ordinances. There are old inherited systems that were put in without permits. In each of those cases, the septic system might be discharging into surface waters, farm drains, storm sewers or somebody’s yard.

Those issues tend to be found through a point-of-sale inspection or a complaint from a neighbor, Stephens said. Michigan’s Washtenaw County, where the University of Michigan is located, has an ongoing Time of Sale program that began in 2000. Within the first 18 months of the program, the county found that 18 percent of inspected septic systems were failing or inadequate. Point-of-sale inspections do end up being useful in that way. However, it still remains a point of contention for many people. 

In south central Michigan, the Barry-Eaton District Health Department assessed 9,443 sewage systems through its Time of Sale or Transfer program, with corrective action required for 27 percent of that, according to BEDHD’s 2017 10-year report. However, the program received community blowback. The report states that some residents felt the TOST program was “undermining private property ownership and sale/transfer rights.” A year after the 10-year report, in 2018, the program was repealed.

Some of that blowback stems from the cost of repairing or replacing septic systems, which often hit the five-figure range. “Mandating something because you want to have this nice, pristine upper-income inland lake is one thing. But ignoring the fact that downstream there's a whole bunch of people living with pretty sh---y systems that are affecting the environment just as much, if not the public health?” said Dendra Best, executive director of nonprofit Wastewater Education. “It comes down to what's fair, what's environmentally necessary, what is affordable.”

The regulations already in place

The scale of the issue is large. Michigan has between 1.3 and 1.4 million onsite septic systems and 35 percent of its residents rely on septic systems, according to EGLE. And though Michigan does not have a statewide code, there are local ordinances that relate to septic systems.

Municipal health departments, for example, regulate residential onsite systems. Any system installed in Michigan needs to meet permitting requirements from the local health department or the state of Michigan. The state also has an overarching statewide regulation over discharges to Michigan surface water and groundwater.

The closest efforts that EGLE has to maintaining some form of consistency over septic regulations is through the Michigan Local Public Health Accreditation Program. Started in 1998, the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, EGLE and local health departments work together to evaluate and accredit local health departments’ septic regulations on a three-year cycle. “We review the local health department for a legally adopted sanitary code or regulation,” said Dale Ladouceur, a specialist with EGLE’s Onsite Wastewater Program. “They have to have that. It’s one of the pieces we look for. We look for provisions in their code for enforcement, so if there’s a public health concern, issue that needs to be addressed, they have provisions in their code to address it. We look for evidence of enforcement. Those are three key pieces under their local regulation that we are reviewing.”

Ladouceur was involved with the program as a local health department employee in 1998 before shifting to work for the state in 2000, and he remembers the huge variability in documentation of septic systems that there used to be. “Since the inception, it has made huge gains in consistency and documentation, in clarity, not only for local health departments but for the state reviewers,” he said. That sort of documentation helps because health departments are then able to find information quick on where septic systems are in relation to other potential impacts, such as wells, surface water or other septic systems – useful when a resident is trying to replace or install a well or septic system of their own.

But even with increased consistency, that’s still 45 health department jurisdictions with different codes to be evaluated. “It does become challenging when we go from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, recognizing that there are differences in their sanitary codes,” Ladouceur said. “The onsite wastewater program is a small program of primarily four staff evaluating the local health department jurisdictions across the state.”

Aside from the accreditation program, EGLE receives data from local health departments on a quarterly basis, which it uses for trend analysis and funding decisions, according to Nick Assendelft, public information officer with EGLE. “Having said that, we’re working with local health departments to standardize the information so that it can be used in a more consistent fashion. Right now, there are differences in interpretation and differences in county sanitary codes, so this information is not as comprehensive or valuable as it could be,” Assendelft said in an email.

Inconsistent individual code

Having different codes for each county also makes the process more complicated for those working in the private sector of the industry. “One of the problems of not having a uniform statewide code is that we don't have any leadership with regard to programming, a program to assure quality of onsite systems,” Stephens said. “When you have multiple counties next to one another, one county will approve certain types of systems and the other county will not and will approve other types of systems, and many times separated by only a road. It makes it very frustrating for those of us in the private industry to get anything done or to really deal with all the variability in codes and the administration of those codes.”

The standards permitted by one county department might be a system that costs between $7,000 and $10,000 while others permit ones that can go up to $80,000, Stephens added. “It’s unreal,” he said.

The Michigan Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association is trying to change that through educational efforts. MOWRA helps host the Michigan Onsite Wastewater Conference each year, an educational conference for the industry and interested parties to learn about latest industry trends and regulatory changes. “We’re not reaching everyone, but we do make progress,” Stephens said. “We do get to feel more comfortable with what they’re doing.”

MOWRA also worked with the Fenner Nature Center in Lansing to construct a point-of-use wastewater treatment and re-use demonstration and training tool in its new multi-purpose pavilion in 2019 to aid in educational efforts. MOWRA assisted with funding, and Stephens Consulting Services designed the system. And when there’s a bill circulating, MOWRA helps lobby for it. 

Building the foundation of a statewide code

The current iteration of Wastewater Education’s efforts to develop a statewide code for onsite wastewater systems in Michigan is an interactive online process. Though the process began in early 2020 with about 70 people, COVID-19 meant that Wastewater Education has only recently restarted this attempt to cooperatively develop a code.

Housed on a private site – onsitewastewaterinfo.wordpress.com – anyone who wants to get involved or give input is welcome to join the process. Wastewater Education is a nonprofit that started in 2003 as the Northwest Michigan Onsite Wastewater Task Force under a grant from the Joyce Foundation. But now Wastewater Education’s mission goes beyond just northwest Michigan. “When you are looking at instituting something on a statewide basis, you have to take into account everybody that has a piece of that, that what you hope will end up being an accepted, workable solution,” Best said.

As Best put it, pushing for legislation without considering all the parts that will eventually be involved is like giving birth to a baby, and then giving the child to someone else to figure out feeding, clothing it and financing expenses like childcare, education and a wedding. “It's not going to work, because it can't work,” she said. “Because there's no infrastructure in place to put what you want to have done on an equitable, manageable footing.”

A broad invite to the website was sent to various entities that had a stake in the situation and everyone involved in the live events Wastewater Education hosted before COVID-19 hit.

How the process works:

  • Anyone can request an invite to access onsitewastewaterinfo.wordpress.com, where they can make a free account.
  • Specific web pages, linked from the homepage, allow visitors to comment on various sections of the potential legislation. These include regulation, administrative actions, enforcement and funding structures.
  • Discussion pages for subsections are opened every week or so.
  • Once a section has been discussed, the plan is to organize a video conference discussion to reach consensus on that section of the legislation.

“Consensus means that you don't get 100percent of what you want,” Best said. “Do we have a majority consensus that this is a workable option? In this case, yes, majority does rule, because eventually that's that majority that's going to have to do the job. And if you've created something that is unworkable or that people ignore, what's the point of having it? It has to be accepted and acceptable.”

That’s something that Best emphasized, that just because a state has statewide regulations doesn’t mean they’re effective or enforced. “There are some (states) that still have county differences,” Best said. “You could literally sort of step across this imaginary line and not be able to do A when it’s perfectly acceptable in B.” Then you have states like Ohio and Minnesota, which Best pointed to as examples of states that have handled their states’ septic regulations well.

University, community, state

“The reason why septic systems got attention in the ‘70s was (researchers) were noticing around many of our lakes, they were getting greener, and typically the lower half of Minnesota is pretty heavy ag,” said Sara Heger, a researcher and instructor with the University of Minnesota’s Onsite Sewage Treatment Program.

The university started doing septic system training in 1974. Some counties started requiring certification, but the state code was voluntary until 1996 when Minnesota’s state legislature made state rules and licensing mandatory. “We are the primary education provider to become certified, so that really grew our programs,” Heger said. “If your roof leaks, it could ruin your house,” she said. “If the septic system leaks, it could be leaking sewage into your home or it’s essentially polluting the environment. So the ramifications of that system not working are really high, but I think out of sight, out of mind to a lot of people.” Minnesota’s efforts around septic systems seem to be working – the estimated percentage of septic systems compliant with state law “increased from approximately 74 percent in 2010 to 81 percent in 2019,” according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s 2019 Subsurface Sewage Treatment Systems annual report.

COVID-19, cost, climate change remain as barriers

The 2021 Michigan Onsite Wastewater Conference was canceled due to COVID-19 and Wastewater Education’s efforts to create a set of regulations were postponed, but the pandemic has had a harsher effect on the industry than some missed events. “This has pretty much become a very back issue for the public health department,” Best said. “Ultimately this falls under the public health code. It has to be part of the public health code, and they just don't have the time. Right now, they don't have the time and the inclination and the manpower to deal with anything other than COVID.”

Even if the public health departments get involved, cost remains an issue. “The problem is, we can enact all of the legislation, all of the local rules that we want, that says if your home or property is in this condition, you will, you shall, you must do this amount of upgrade. But we haven't provided them any funds to do it. And if they had the funds to do it, they would probably have done it in the first place,” Best said.

The goal for Wastewater Education is an affordable and manageable system that can include a fund to help people upgrade their systems when needed. That latter part is something that could become a reality soon. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the MI Clean Water Plan last fall, which includes $35 million for a low-interest loan program for homeowners replacing failing septic systems.

And climate change, while a concern for many people, is still a topic with many unanswered questions regarding its impact on septic systems. “Climate change is something we all have to keep in mind in the septic system industry, but it has the potential to impact us all differently across the U.S.,” Heger said. “There are concerns about more moisture and how that may impact soil treatment, but there is an added benefit of warmer soil which is beneficial for septic systems. Regulations across the US need to be updated to reflect our current understanding of science and climate change should be a factor. How much of one remains to be seen but having conservative regulations will allow for more flexibility.”

The 2021 Michigan Onsite Wastewater Conference was canceled due to COVID-19 and Wastewater Education’s efforts to create a set of regulations were postponed, but the pandemic has had a harsher effect on the industry than some missed events. “This has pretty much become a very back issue for the public health department,” Best said. “Ultimately this falls under the public health code. It has to be part of the public health code, and they just don't have the time. Right now, they don't have the time and the inclination and the manpower to deal with anything other than COVID.”

Even if the public health departments get involved, cost remains an issue. “The problem is, we can enact all of the legislation, all of the local rules that we want, that says if your home or property is in this condition, you will, you shall, you must do this amount of upgrade. But we haven't provided them any funds to do it. And if they had the funds to do it, they would probably have done it in the first place,” Best said. The goal for Wastewater Education is an affordable and manageable system that can include a fund to help people upgrade their systems when needed. That latter part is something that could become a reality soon. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the MI Clean Water Plan last fall, which includes $35 million for a low-interest loan program for homeowners replacing failing septic systems.

And climate change, while a concern for many people, is still a topic with many unanswered questions regarding its impact on septic systems. “Climate change is something we all have to keep in mind in the septic system industry, but it has the potential to impact us all differently across the U.S.,” Heger said. “There are concerns about more moisture and how that may impact soil treatment, but there is an added benefit of warmer soil which is beneficial for septic systems. Regulations across the US need to be updated to reflect our current understanding of science and climate change should be a factor. How much of one remains to be seen but having conservative regulations will allow for more flexibility.”

Capacity remains an issue for the industry when dealing with other external factors like climate change. The people more concerned over its impact on septic systems are currently the people who live close enough to the lakes to be affected by the high water levels, but the industry otherwise mostly has its hands full, according to Stephens.

“I would suggest that climate change is not a driving factor right now for the onsite industry, because we have so much catching up to do that it’s not impacting our onsite systems, with the exception of those that may be impacted because we’re losing shoreline around the Great Lakes,” Stephens said. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-environment-watch/fight-statewide-septic-code-michigan-property-rights-big-barrier)

Kristen Schweighoefer - Environmental Health Director for Washtenaw County

[Septic code is] certainly an important topic and I think it’s fascinating that the headline remains “no statewide septic code” like there is some kind of wild west without any regulation of septic systems for homes in Michigan.

That, as I’m sure you know, is not the case because every local health department is required to have a local septic code that meets minimum program standards under state review. If those minimum standards aren’t met, a local health department loses their state funding. 

And we have better protections/minimums than other states that do have a statewide code. One neighboring state allows a straight pipe to a ditch. But, the headline is not as catchy. 

Could our local minimums be improved? Sure. But just having a statewide code is no guarantee of that.

My main concerns with any of the legislative efforts is that they have come with significant reductions/prohibitions in local protections and that they don’t come with any funding to support more of an investment. Past bills have not allowed a local health department to be more protective and continue our local time of sale programs. It seems so short sighted if we are really trying to do better. (Source: email comment)

Richard Bowman - Director of Policy for the Nature Conservancy

Kristen is an outstanding choice for this discussion and I just wanted to let you know that I completely agree with her response related to a statewide code. It is an easy sound bite to talk about, but the passage of a statewide septic/sanitary code alone would not necessarily improve the management of septic systems and could be counter productive as statewide codes set the lowest acceptable performance standard and can put pressure on local governments that have established more expansive standards to lower them.  And as Kristen notes, all 83 Michigan Counties are under the jurisdiction of a county or regional health department and all have some type of septic permitting and management program. Are they all as robust as we might like them to be? No, but that is usually a case of limited resources and competing priorities, and simply passing a statewide code does not address those barriers.

Michigan is surrounded by States that have a Statewide Code and those states have as many challenges with failing and poorly maintained septic systems as Michigan does. While the Nature Conservancy is not opposed to a Statewide Sanitary Code, but it is not a policy priority and we are not planning to expend resources trying to pass one because while it would make a great headline and apparent political victory, we are not convinced it would meaningfully advance our goal to help our residents properly maintain and where necessary upgrade or replace their septic systems. (Source: email comment)

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. Water quality, water, health, flooding, sewage management--these are all topics you hear about on WEMU and read about in the news from around the state and around the country. I'm David Fair. And what is often lacking in these conversations and reports is the matter of septic systems. It's a bigger problem than you might think with a variety of ramifications. Many are pushing for a statewide code in Michigan to improve the situation. Others, like my guest this morning, say, "Well, maybe not so fast." Kristen Schweighoefer is the environmental health director for Washtenaw County. And thank you so much for making time for us today.

Kristen Schweighoefer: Thanks for having me.

David Fair: From the statewide perspective, Kristen, there are about one point three to one point four million on-site septic systems. About 35 percent of state residents actually rely on them. What are the rough numbers here in Washtenaw County?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Sure. Washtenaw County has somewhere around 45 or 55,000 homes on septic systems.

David Fair: Throughout the state, many of the systems are old and failing and pose an environmental threat. Is there a good percentage of the septic systems in our county for which that is true?

Kristen Schweighoefer: We see very few true failures where there is sewage on the ground. And that's part because we have a strong local code, as do all the local health departments in Michigan. Certainly, those codes can vary, and I think that's why there's a lot of talk about getting a statewide code, so there's one standard for all.

David Fair: Well, let's stay focused on the septic systems themselves for a moment. When they go bad, what are the potential environmental ramifications?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Sure. So, a home septic system takes the sewage that's generated from a home. So that's everything that goes down your toilets, through your laundry, your sinks, et cetera. And it treats it aerobically and anaerobic. And so, if those bacteria aren't treated, then they can eventually end up potentially in our groundwater or on our surface waters.

David Fair: And if we have full failure, then it's even more dire.

Kristen Schweighoefer: Sure. Than we could see sewage surfacing to the ground, or we could see if a home doesn't have a septic system, you could have an illicit discharge right to a ditch to our surface water.

David Fair: And that is why these local codes are so vitally important. The manner in which septic systems are regulated, as you mentioned, vary widely state to state and community to community. We have some neighboring states that have statewide codes and still have the same kinds of problems we see in portions of Michigan. What is the process for regulating septic systems in Washtenaw County?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Sure, some in Washtenaw County, we've had a septic code since about 1961, and our most recent update was back in 2008. As a local health department, we issue that statewide--that local code--that is based on statewide minimum program criteria. So, again, there are some variations from county to county, but we feel pretty proud that we have a code that addresses sizing and appropriate criteria to make sure that a home on septic is being treated properly.

David Fair: What would you recommend as advice to someone who was looking to purchase a home and finds out that it does run on a septic system?

Kristen Schweighoefer: So, in Washtenaw County, we actually have a time of sale regulation that we've had for a little over 20 years now. That regulation requires any home on a well or a septic system to be evaluated prior to the purchase of that home. So, a certified inspector is going to take a look and evaluate that system and make sure it's meeting minimum criteria. And if it doesn't, then during that home sale process, we make sure that those items are corrected so that it's functioning properly.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment and our conversation with Washtenaw County environmental health director Kristen Schweighoefer continues. And, Kristin, repairing or replacing a septic system is neither easy nor inexpensive, often costing into the five-figure range. How big a barrier is that to a well-regulated, well-functioning system throughout the county and throughout the state?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Sure. Again, as you mentioned, some of those repairs can be costly. Sometimes, it's difficult because the soils aren't suitable, and there's some other factors at play there. So, one of the concerns is how do we pay for these systems? There's not a public funding stream to help with grants or loans widely available in the community. So, we use our time of sale program where the property transfer, usually there's some money that a homeowner may receive as part of that that is able to help pay for some of those costs.

David Fair: [Now, Governor Gretchen Whitmer last fall did announce her MI Clean Water Plan, and that included 35 million dollars to provide low interest loans to homeowners with failing septic systems. First of all, is that enough to cover failing systems throughout the state?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Gosh, that's a really difficult estimate for me to confirm. I don't know. I sure it sounds like a lot of money.

David Fair: It sure does, doesn't it?

Kristen Schweighoefer: I sure hope so. But again, I think if we're looking at a really robust system to evaluate this statewide, that money could be used up quickly. I really don't have a good sense of that yet.

David Fair: And what could be done for those who couldn't even afford to take out such a loan, even if it is low interest. Could they lose their property by not addressing the problem?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Again, that's one of the things that local health departments have grave concerns on, as we don't want to be in the business of removing people from their homes. We want to make sure that we have people in homes, but, obviously, making sure that we're able to have a safe and sanitary way to dispose of sewage at the same time. And those are very difficult conversations when there's a lack of money

David Fair: And when there is a lack of money and someone comes to you and says, "I know the work needs to be done, I can't do it right now." What is your reaction to them?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Sure, we do the very best we can to try and come up with a suitable solution that both protects public health and the environment. And there may be some time considerations. We may be able to do some other smaller, lower-cost fixes to help either delay or defray costs. So making low-flow fixtures to reduce the amount of water going into a sewage system may help it recover or function better for a period of time until they can replace the system entirely.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with about septic systems and policy with Washtenaw County Environmental Health Director Kristin Schweighoefer on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. I never thought I'd be so fascinated talking about septic systems, but here we are. There are two bills that have been introduced in the state House of Representatives that would establish those statewide standards we've referred to. In addition to uniformity and code, it would relegate the inspection of septic systems to the State Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, or EGLE, as it's called. I imagine many counties across the state might actually appreciate having that responsibility taken off the books. What about Washtenaw County?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Sure, we would need to look at the, uh..The devil is always in the details in some of these bills. We you know, we appreciate having the lift of the burden go elsewhere because some of these bills do require significant investment from local health departments. And right now, there's no funding for that. So, we're really one of the concerns from the groups that I'm affiliated with are making sure that we have the staffing, resources, and funding not only for local health departments, but also the funding for homeowners to address some of these challenges.

David Fair: Now, with all that EGLE is responsible for, should statewide standards be put in place and EGLE, take over the inspections themselves? Do you have concerns? You talk about funding that they could not do timely inspections, nor would they have the staffing for appropriate follow-through if they found a problem.

Kristen Schweighoefer: Sure. And some of the concerns is that being the local agency, we would be the ones that would likely hear the brunt of it from our disgruntled customers. And that can be a challenge as well.

David Fair: So, as you have conversations with officials at the state level, what are you asking before they take any action in any particular direction?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Sure. So, again, we're really looking for some basic items in terms of making sure that we're thinking through the ramifications, both from a customer standpoint, from a public health standpoint, and from an environmental health standpoint. We all can agree that we want public health and groundwater and surface water to be protected through sound environmental regulation based on current science that's available, cost-effective technology, best practice and making sure that things are reasonable for all involved.

David Fair: We talked about cost with many property owners objecting to statewide standards because of that. Additionally, there are several conservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy, that argue a statewide standard may result in adoption of the very lowest possible standard and that could do more harm to all water quality than good. So, as you assess all of that, based on what you know at this point, are you of the opinion in this time that a statewide standard for septic systems should be adopted or not?

Kristen Schweighoefer: Gosh, there's so many things that go into that consideration. And so, I would say, generally speaking, I think it's good to have some minimum standards, but I think that it's important to not preempt local regulations that may be more strict. One of the concerns I've seen with past regulations is it does adopt a minimum, but it also prevents those communities that have more local support and ability to do more from doing just that. Our local time of sale regulation is one example that was specifically preempted in previous versions of bills, and I really think that would be detrimental to our community.

David Fair: Do you see a path forward to potentially get to a place where balance can be achieved there?

Kristen Schweighoefer: I'm an eternal optimist, so I sure hope so.

David Fair: Well, with that, we will let you go. We will follow along, and, when necessary, we'll have this conversation again.

Kristen Schweighoefer: Excellent. Thanks so much.

David Fair: Thank you, Kristen. That is Kristen Schweighoefer. She is environmental health director for Washtenaw County and has been our guest on Issues of the Environment. This is a weekly feature, and it's produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. If you'd like more information on our guest and today's topic, just visit our Web site at WEMU dot org. We'll have all the links you need and all the information you'd like to read through. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu