In Our View: A Cleaner County

Properly maintained septic tanks are crucial in protecting public health, groundwater

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To the under-informed, mere mention of “septic tanks” might trigger feelings of concern. Fact is, though, septic tanks in and of themselves are not a problem.

Furthermore, when maintained, regularly inspected and operated properly, septic tanks actually offer environmental benefits that public sewer systems cannot achieve. Septic systems naturally filter organic waste and recharge groundwater (which supplies 98 percent of Clark County’s drinking water), as opposed to wastewater treatment plants that send treated water into the Columbia River.

But when septic systems fail, massive problems occur, including strong, foul odors. But more detrimental to public health and the environment is discharge of raw sewage onto properties and into groundwater systems. This is why Clark County enforces a vigorous inspection program for 31,000-plus local septic systems (nationwide, about one-fourth of homes use septic systems). Many of these failures are unintended by property owners, but the most atrocious cases are intentional, and Erik Robinson reported one of the worst offenders in Monday’s print edition of The Columbian.

A former owner of a house in southeast Clark County cut into an underground pipe leading to a septic tank and diverted raw sewage — effluent from sinks, toilets, showers and tubs — over a cliff and into an area that leads to the Washougal River. The violation was found by Dale Waliezer, owner of a septic system installation and inspection business, while he was inspecting the property for a new owner. Waliezer estimated about 300 gallons of raw sewage a day had been discharged from the five-year-old house before it became vacant several months ago. Waliezer said he finds “a disastrous one like this probably once a month. This is more extreme than most.”

County officials say they will not track down the former property owner and are content to get the problem fixed. We’d like to see the county adopt a tougher stance than that, but in a time of limited resources, it’s good that the county remains vigilant through its program of 23 contracted septic system inspectors. Tom Gonzales, resource protection manager for the Clark County Health Department, said that the vigilance of the inspection program is strengthened by public assistance as neighbors submit complaints about failed septic systems. To report possible violations in Clark County, call 397-2375, ext. 5. In the city of Vancouver, call 487-7810.

Proper maintenance of septic systems, in addition to protecting public health and groundwater, makes good financial sense. Neglect expedites replacement, which can run into several thousand dollars. But with regular inspections and proper maintenance, a typical septic system can operate properly for 20 to 30 years.

In addition to protecting groundwater, you can help protect the quality of water in local streams and creeks. Burnt Bridge Creek, Salmon Creek, Gibbons Creek and the East Fork of the Lewis River have all been harmed by failed septic systems. Here are a few tips for owners of septic systems:

Stagger wash load days to avoid overloading the system.

Use household cleaners in moderation and follow instructions on labels.

Don’t plant anything but grass over or near drain fields. Roots from other plants can damage drain lines.

Don’t use septic tank additives, local health officials advise.

Don’t use your septic system as a trash can for grease, coffee grounds, cigarette butts, paper towels, plastics, cat litter, pesticides, hazardous chemicals, or any nonbiodegradable substances.

For more information, visit http://www.clark.wa.gov/public-health/ and click on “Septic systems and wells.”