Michigan Seeks to Implement Inspections of Septic Systems

As I stood in my yard recently watching a technician uncover my septic tank, I thought about the expression “out of sight, out of mind.” It sums up the way most people think about their septic tanks. I was about to receive confirmation that I had unwittingly joined the club.

Possessing a degree in environmental engineering, I know all about the science of septic systems and the need to maintain them. What I did not know was how long it had been since my septic tank was last pumped out. With the kids gone, I figured I had extra time before I needed to do anything. Accurately calculating the bonus time only works however if one remembers the starting date.

When the technician opened the access port, it was apparent my math was off. I had waited too long. Fortunately, there was no damage to my system. The technician pointed out, more than once, how lucky I was to have made an appointment when I did. After a lengthy and well-deserved lecture on the importance of maintaining a septic system, he was off to his next job.

While I dodged a bullet, many people are not so lucky. Poorly maintained septic systems cause a lot of disputes, especially when a  real estate transfer is involved. The Michigan Seller’s Disclosure Act requires a seller to disclose information about the condition of their septic system. Just because the toilets flush or the sink drains does not necessarily mean the system is in good working order.

I receive numerous calls seeking advice on malfunctioning septic systems. Many of the callers are home buyers who have viable claims for fraud based on misrepresentations about the condition of the system they just purchased. Others callers are homeowners with claims against contractors for negligently installing or repairing a system.

Despite being blessed with an abundance of lakes and rivers, Michigan is the only state without a statewide regulatory framework for maintaining septic systems. Counties and townships have the right to set standards under the public health code but few do. Only a handful require inspections.There is an effort in Lansing to change that.

Senate Bills 299 and 300 would require establishment of a technical advisory committee to formulate standards and guidance to maintain septic systems. The Bills would also create statewide performance standards and implementation of an inspection system enforcing those standards.

If enacted, SB 299 and 300 would require an owner of an onsite wastewater treatment system (a fancy term for septic tank) to have an inspection performed every five years. Inspections would also be required if a complaint is filed with a local health department, there is a proposed change in use of the system or an application for a construction permit is filed.

After an inspection, the bills require that a report be filed with the State of Michigan. If an inspection reveals the need to have a tank pumped or there is evidence of a system failure, the owner is required to take action to remedy the situation within certain time frames or face the imposition of civil fines.

It is not entirely clear from the bills who needs to keep track of the inspection schedule.  The language suggests that the burden falls on the landowner. If that is the case, I will need to step up my game.