September 09, 2009

Don't stick your head in the septic tank

As published in The Erin Advocate

In the murky holding tank of septic waste disposal issues, words of wisdom naturally rise to the top.

"Never enter or stick your head into a septic tank," warns the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in its home inspection checklist. "There is no oxygen in the tank for you to breath, and the tank contains deadly gases which can kill you in only a few seconds."

Even if you don't believe it, common sense will tell you not to try it. Making sense of Erin's septic waste issues is no easy task, so before we dive in, let us review some fascinating facts.

Bacteria do much of the work of waste disposal, starting in the human body. Septic tanks typically have three layers: the sludge at the bottom, the scum from fats and oils at the top and the liquid in the middle, where anaerobic bacteria digest some of the solids.

When you put water down your drains, liquid is forced out of the septic tank and into the perforated pipes of a leaching bed, where a slime layer of oxygen-based aerobic bacteria consume organic matter in the wastewater.

When the system works properly, virtually all of the harmful bacteria and viruses are gone by the time the water filters down into the aquifers that feed our wells. If you have a private well, there is free testing for Coliform bacteria, including the dangerous E. coli strain. Call the Health Unit at 519-846-2715.

Since Erin has no sewage system, most homeowners have their own miniature sewage treatment plant. Naturally, it makes no sense to put chemicals into the septic tank which could kill the bacteria, or objects that will not decompose. Download a PDF guide to maintaining your system, in the Forms & Documents section at See the section entitled "Toilets and Drains are Not Garbage Cans".

Septage is what is pumped out of the tank. The sludge builds up and needs to be removed every three to five years, depending on how much the tank is used. If sludge gets into the leaching pipes, it can cost thousands of dollars to fix the problem. A new system could cost more than $20,000.

The Town does not provide a destination for septage. It is not like garbage disposal, which is now a County responsibility. Facilities to treat septage and/or sewage are normally operated by municipalities, but when there is no sewer system, no treatment facility is required.

"It is an individual householder's responsibility," said Mayor Rod Finnie. Once you hire a company to pump out your septic tank, it is up to them to find an acceptable destination for the septage. That situation is unacceptable for some people, like Erin resident Debby Gear. She was surprised that haulers outside Erin would not provide service, since many treatment plants will not accept waste from outside their town.

"I think the County should have responsibility," she said. "With so many people on septic systems, there has to be something in place for the rural residents."

Erin's septage, and the untreated sewage from holding tanks at downtown properties near the West Credit River, is spread on farm fields when possible, according to Ministry of the Environment regulations. Several years ago, that practice was banned in the winter, since the frozen ground cannot absorb the waste.

The alternative is to truck it to a municipality willing to accept the waste, with a sewage treatment plant of adequate capacity. Hamilton had been the destination, but the city has decided to stop accepting outside waste. Erin haulers now have to drive to the Collingwood plant, not a pleasant prospect in the winter. The situation is unstable, with no short-term solutions in sight from the Town, County or Ministry of the Environment.

"They're going to have to do something," said Ed Peavoy, who has been pumping Erin septic tanks for more than 25 years. Higher costs have forced his basic fee up by about $100. Fall is a busy time for haulers, since it is best to give the bacteria time to re-establish themselves before winter.

Things will be simpler once Erin has its own sewage treatment plant. "If we're going to deal with sewage, we should look after septage as well," said Mayor Finnie. Erin's Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) will include septage disposal, but a sewer system and plant could be more than 10 years away.

Well, here it is, the end of the column, and my holding tank of words is overflowing. Tune in next week to find out what the Ministry of the Environment is doing (and not doing) about Erin's septic waste problems.