Septic Systems Often Hide Neglected Local Stories

May 25, 2022
A septic system being removed in 2014 in Florida to help reduce fecal coliform contamination in the Lower St. Johns River watershed. Photo: Peter Haden, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

TipSheet: Septic Systems Often Hide Neglected Local Stories

By Joseph A. Davis

Looking for a local story that’s all too often ignored by environmental journalists? A story neglected, actually, by a whole lot of people (which is often the problem)? Try septic systems.

Too often, environmental stories that are “out of sight” are also “out of mind.” Septic systems are one of those problems that we, quite literally, bury. But just remember that more than one out of five U.S. households use them, with more than 60 million people served by them.

No, it’s not a big-city story. Septic systems usually belong to people who live “out of town.” That may be part of the story, too.

It’s also a story that varies by state and region. New England has the highest proportion of homes served by septic systems, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with about half of all homes in some states there served by individual systems. And more than one-third of the homes in the southeastern states have them as well.

And yes, sometimes septic systems do raise environmental justice issues — although plenty of the well-off have troubled septic systems as well.


Why it matters

Back up a bit to start. Waterborne disease is still arguably the deadliest environmental problem worldwide. Bad sanitation kills kids.

So the fact that most U.S. households are hooked up to municipal sewage treatment and drinking water systems is a blessing — but also a distraction from the problems of those who aren’t.


Many of those who use their own septic systems

commonly also get their drinking water from a private

well. That’s where the worst problems can start.


Many of those who use their own septic systems commonly also get their drinking water from a private well. According to the U.S. Geologic Survey, some 43 million people (15 percent of the U.S. population) rely on private wells.

That’s where the worst problems can start: without proper siting, design, construction and maintenance, toilet water can contaminate drinking water. This is how a horrific number of serious diseases are transmitted.

Cholera outbreaks were seen repeatedly in the U.S. during the 1800s. Modern sewage and drinking water treatment made it rare. The Clean Water Act of 1972 began the process of making most water safe for most people — but it’s a process that’s still going on today.


The backstory

In homes that use septic systems, the toilets and drains are piped into a large septic tank made of concrete or plastic. There the solids are digested by bacteria and other organisms before the wastewater trickles into a drainfield of perforated pipes that let it percolate into the soil. This cleans it further, but it eventually ends up as groundwater.

In many U.S. jurisdictions, the law requires a permit to site and build a septic system. Siting should allow proper percolation and prevent contamination of wells. Design and construction should also be required to prevent pollution. Permits work better on new construction than on systems built before permits were required.

All this is usually administered at the county level. And face it: In some counties, permits are seen as government tyranny.

In either case, septic tanks require periodic maintenance — most importantly pumping out of residual solids. We are sad to report that some households neglect this.

Pathogens are only the worst of possible pollution problems. Nitrogen, which comes from sewage, is another serious pollutant. And when you put bad chemicals into a septic system they were not designed for, those may pass straight through.

Also, clogged septic systems can mean soggy yards and backed-up household pipes. Some pollutants may then end up in lakes, estuaries and streams, as well as in groundwater.


Story ideas

The approaching summer season is a good time for septic system stories. Summer is the time for the eutrophication produced by nitrogen pollution — as well as waterborne disease outbreaks.

Here are some additional story approaches:

  • Find the agency that issues septic system permits in your city or county, and go talk to them. Ask how well the regulatory system is working. How often do they inspect?
  • Find a local contractor who specializes in building or pumping out septic systems and convince them to let you “shadow” one of their trucks. Ask what problems (and solutions) they see.
  • Ask your local health agency about the incidence of waterborne disease in your area.
  • Look for advisories about harvesting and consumption of fish and shellfish in your area. Are any of these related to septic systems?
  • Figure out what areas near you have lots of septic systems and go talk to homeowners or tenants.
  • Figure out what lakes, streams, estuaries or other water bodies in your area (if any) are likeliest to have water quality problems related to faulty septic systems. Investigate.


Reporting resources

  • Local contractors: Here’s one way to find them. Or use Google or the (yes) yellow pages.
  • County agencies: The county agency issuing or enforcing permits for septic systems may vary from place to place. Check for the agency that issues building permits, water permits, etc.
  • State, local and tribal health departments: These are good sources of information on waterborne disease.
  • EPA’s Office of Water: A reliable and helpful source of information on septic systems.
  • National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association: The biggest trade association representing the septic system industry.

[Editor’s Note: For more on how septic systems affect drinking water, check out this Backgrounder and this Inside Story Q&A. Also see this Backgrounder on environmental justice considerations related to drinking water and this TipSheet on beach closures due to water pollution.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 21. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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