Environmental health specialist searching out illegal septic systems

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Illegal and failing septic systems continue to be a problem in the county, said Matthew Hicks, an environmental health specialist with the Carroll County Health Unit.

Besides posing a hazard to those nearby, failed systems can also contribute to ground water contamination and affect water quality in area lakes and rivers, he said.

"We're trying to get a handle on those dumping out on the ground," Hicks explained, "and stop the illegal ones that do go in.

"Right now," he continued, "we know of at least two illegal systems. One is being taken care of and we are negotiating on the other. A third we are researching. Those are the ones we know of."

Hicks said neighbors will call to report illegal systems or he spots them while traveling through the county.

According to Hicks, local real estate offices and banks are aware of the laws governing septic systems, but the general public is not.

"We're trying to do a better job on that," he said, "and get the information out. A lot of people do call to ask, but others don't."

Mobile home are perhaps the biggest offenders, he said.

"They'll drop them off and next thing your know, there's a house and septic that was never approved," he said. "No one knows. They are easier to move in and out."

Act 402 of 1977 states that all septic systems be designed by a designated representative and be installed by someone licensed by the state.

Designated representatives, or D.R.s as they are known in the industry, are licensed by the state, Hicks said. They perform perk tests, layout the system and submit the permit application to the health department.

There is an exemption to Act 402 ---- if a person has more than 10 acres of land. They don't need a D.R. to design the system or a licensed installer, but they do need to go through the health department for approval.

Also, the rules governing the exemption require that a septic system be 200 feet from any property line and 100 feet from any water source.

"Only one house is allowed per exemption," said Hicks, "no matter how many acres they have, unless it is deeded otherwise."

Hicks said there are several different septic systems, but the pipe and gravel system, the oldest system, is believed to be the best.

Gone are the days of steel septic tanks, which have failed, he said. Today, concrete or plastic tanks are required, and a system must have a distribution box and lateral lines.

According to Hicks, property owners are money ahead when they comply with the law.

"They come out cheaper when they have installation by a licensed installer rather than someone who doesn't know what they're doing," he explained. "I suggest they do it right the first time."

He did note that property owners can replace the line from the house to the tank without approval.

"But, anything out of the distribution box or lateral field must go through a D.R. and health department," he said.

Composting toilets are acceptable, said Hicks, but they must have lateral lines and a tank for gray water.

Failure to comply with state law governing septic systems can result in civil action.

"We do have legal leverage," Hicks confirmed. "If we find something, we write it up on Act 96 of 1913, general sanitation regulations, that states no one shall make a health hazard. That covers things such as big piles of trash that attract rodents.

"If it's septic, it falls under Act 402. People are given 30 working days to comply or show signs of progress," he said. "If they don't, then it goes to the Arkansas Board of Health, which can impose a $250 a day fine for each violation."

Also, Hicks noted, the case can be turned over to the county prosecutor for adjudication as a civil matter.

Septic systems installed before 1977 are grandfathered, Hicks added, unless it's surfacing and failing, then it becomes a health hazard.

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