Five or six days a week Ronnie Tamez rises early in the morning to monitor and fix something beneath the ground that many people in Clark County would prefer to not think about. “You don’t think about a septic until it’s broke. Out of sight, out of mind,” Tamez said.
One summer morning, Tamez, the owner of First Call Septic Service, and Chris Gross, a senior technician, park vans full of equipment in a mobile home park in north Clark County to inspect the park’s septic system, an underground structure that treats effluent and wastewater from kitchens and bathrooms.
Clad in Carhartt work shirts, Tamez and Gross used drills to remove the screws on the plastic lids to the concrete tube buried beneath the park’s lawn. An acrid smell of decay rose from the pool of gray scum inside. “That’s the thing about septic systems is they’re underground. A lot can happen,” Tamez said.
What can happen is pathogens from neglected and malfunctioning septic systems leak into drinking water or public waterways, causing maladies ranging from eye infections to hepatitis.
In Clark County, it’s not clear how much of that hazard is posed by aging or not maintained septic systems. According to a staff report, the county has approximately 33,500 septic systems, 9,500 of which are “well past due on scheduled inspections” meaning, at worst, they could be leaking human waste. While Clark County Public Health is making progress in reducing the backlog, it’s not clear what kind of hazard exists.
While there’s no documented event of an illness outbreak tied to a septic system in Clark County, county records show that since 2006, 82,645 inspection reports of septic systems were submitted to the county, with 31 percent having a reported deficiency.
County’s septic scene
“It looks like we got some gooey goodness onto the drill,” Tamez said.
They dipped “sludge judges,” long plastic tubes into the tank to measure how much effluent can flow into it before it needs to be pumped. They removed and rinsed off the biotube filters, bundles of tubes that collect straws, feminine hygiene products and other garbage that shouldn’t be flushed. Later Tamez tested the pipes in its drainfield, the final resting place for the treated effluent, discovering one needs to be fixed.
Tamez said he’s seen much worse, such as septic systems so badly neglected that they have cracked tanks and tubes clogged with clay-like waste that can’t process any more effluent. He recalled one homeowner in Skamania County who couldn’t find his septic because it had been so long since it’d been inspected.
“(Septics are) all over the county,” said Chuck Harman, Clark County’s on-site septic program manager. Harman explained that his program doesn’t directly inspect septic systems — that work is done by 24 certified inspectors, like Tamez, that property owners can hire for about $100 to $120.
The frequency of required inspections depends on the septic system. A basic gravity system with no pump needs to be inspected every three years and a pressure distribution every two years. More complex systems need to be inspected annually.
A review of a county database found that 6,338 systems requiring inspections in the last three years had not been inspected since at least 2013. Another 725 that require inspections every two years hadn’t been checked since at least 2014. Also 1,170 septic systems requiring annual inspections hadn’t been inspected since at least 2015.
Harman said the county relies on a “voluntary approach” to compliance with property owners.
“We weren’t sending reminders to folks who were past due,” Harmon said. “We were just sending reminders to folks who were keeping up.”
Over time, he said that a backlog of septic systems past due for an inspection built up. Harman said that in the last two years the county has successfully stepped up its efforts to contact property owners past due on their inspections.
“That effort alone reduced the number of past-due inspections by (4,000) or 5,000 systems,” said Brigette Bashaw, lead environmental health specialist with Clark County Public Health.
She said that the city of Vancouver has a program intended to encourage property owners to connect to its sewer system. Some property owners may have connected to sewer but the county’s records haven’t been updated she said. Bashaw also said that the program is working to reconcile its records and recently received authorization to hire another employee to help.
According to a staff report, the county hopes to bring 9,500 past-due septic systems into compliance by 2018. By 2020, it hopes to clear the backlog. Harman said that while the county has punitive measures it could use against noncompliant property owners, they don’t.
“There’s just no reasonable way we could do strong enforcement against thousands of people simultaneously,” he said.
Tamez, of First Call, said part of the problem is misinformation about septics and resistance to inspections. He said he’s heard people say that a septic can be treated and maintained by flushing ground beef or sour yogurt down the toilet. He’s also heard anecdotes about throwing a dead cat into the tank. He said he frequently hears real estate agents falsely say that properly operating septic systems don’t need to be serviced.
“People say septic pumping is a scam,” he said.
In the past, the county has been reluctant to increase fees assessed to property owners to support its program. In 2009, then County Commissioner Tom Mielke said the county should stop requiring people with overflowing septic systems to fix them at least until they begin to disturb the neighbors.
Dots to connect
Jeremy Simmons, wastewater management section manager in the state Department of Public Health, said that counties tend to avoid fining property owners over their septic systems because they’d rather they use the money for repairs, which can be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
He pointed to an incident earlier this year in the Puget Sound where people were sickened from raw oysters possibly contaminated from a septic system, but said he wasn’t aware of others.
Brett Raunig of the Washington State Department of Ecology Water Quality Program said septic systems are a piece of the waterway pollution puzzle. But singling out failing septic systems as specific sources of pollution in a watershed is difficult.
“In my time, I haven’t seen one where it’s been pinpointed to where it’s a problem and it needs to be fixed,” he said. “But I know they’re out there and need to be fixed.”
For example, numerous streams in Clark County have water quality problems that Ecology and local agencies are trying to address. Of those streams, a handful have high nutrient loads and a few fecal bacteria present. But it’s often not clear if it’s from a leaking septic system, a nearby farm or even neighborhood pets.
Dennis Dykes, a hydrogeologist and environmental consultant, said whether septic systems pollute depends on how many exist in a given area, how heavily they’re used, and how well the drainfield soils handle the water, among other things.
“I’m a rural resident and don’t feel a need for the county to put my system in the same box as an old system on a small lot in the urban area,” he said in an email.
Tamez said he has plenty of work and is sometimes at work until 10 p.m. But despite all the neglected septic system he’s seen, he doesn’t want to see fines but instead education.
“The old stigma of the septic guy where he comes out and pumps the tank and stomps around and says he doesn’t smell anything,” he said. “Those days are gone.”