September 08, 2010

Septic inspections would maintain standards

As published in The Erin Advocate

With many septic systems in the Town of Erin reaching the end stages of useful service, perhaps it would be in the best interests of public health to start a municipal inspection system.

The provincial government gives municipalities the authority to do inspections, but does not require them to do so – at least not yet. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has been talking about requiring septic re-inspections through changes to the Ontario Building Code, but such initiatives always proceed slowly.

A local inspection system is not being considered now, and I would be surprised if any election candidate would endorse the idea, but sooner or later, the issue will arise.

While vacationing near Goderich, I read about an inspection system started in 2007 by the Township of Huron-Kinloss, in response to requests from property owners.

Inspections and repairs are mandatory there, covering all 2,800 private septic systems in a rotating schedule over six to seven years. Their township website sums up the rationale: "If unmaintained, septic systems are a threat to public health and the environment."

By coincidence their system is operated by B.M. Ross, the same consultants doing Erin's Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP). Residents make an appointment, arrange to have their tank pumped out before the inspection, and ensure that the lid is accessible.

It is joint venture with the local health department, funded by a $55 per year surcharge on people's tax bills. The compliance rate is 99 per cent, and they even have "septic socials", with their mayor hosting educational demonstrations. Check it out in the Environmental Initiatives section of their website,

While building departments monitor construction of new septic systems and major renovations, the primary responsibility for maintenance and replacement falls to the property owner. Should the Town be sticking its nose into what some may consider a private matter?

I was contacted by a Hillsburgh village resident last year, who wanted to know about progress on municipal sewers. They were upset at getting high bacteria readings in their private well, and suspected local septic systems as the source.

Maybe this was an isolated incident, and maybe the well was defective, but it highlights a potentially risky environment, and a communal matter. I suspect it is being made worse by people holding off on septic replacements, wondering if sewers are coming any time soon. If your own waste is seeping up into your lawn, do not be holding your breath waiting for sewers. At a minimum, you should be paying for rehabilitation work, since sewers could take 5-10 years.

The Town of Erin has about 4,000 dwellings, 91 per cent of which are single detached homes and virtually all with septic systems. Since 2001, only 30 septic systems in the whole town were replaced. Systems normally last 25-30 years, though some last much longer. Today the average age of Erin village systems, not counting the newer subdivisions, is about 33 years.

A Health Department study in 1995 found that 61 per cent of homes in Erin village have inadequate space to replace a regular septic system to the modern standards of the Ontario Building Code. (Smaller systems may be possible, at a much higher cost.) There were 94 lots totally inaccessible to the large equipment needed to replace a septic system.

A Ministry of the Environment study in 2005 found "adverse effects" on the Credit River due to aging septics. The Ministry is adamant that sewage treatment is a necessity, not just to benefit the urban areas, but to handle the septage from rural properties. Septage is the sludge pumped out of septic tanks, which is now spread as fertilizer on Erin farm fields, or trucked at high cost to a plant in Collingwood.

To those who are opposed to sewers and the growth they will bring, I say now is the time to step forward with practical ideas. Fear of development is easy to whip up, but realistic solutions are harder to come by. The problems of a decaying septic infrastructure are serious, so doing nothing is not an option.

I have advocated a sewer system because it provides clear solutions to various problems, and I think major growth and excessive housing density are unlikely. But I am open to alternative ideas, and I hope that the SSMP will give serious attention to alternatives in its technical research. The SSMP is an Environmental Assessment that the Town was obliged to undertake, and is the only mechanism we have for dealing with this matter.

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) has done a technical study on the health of the Credit River as part of the SSMP, and last month I urged Town Council to make it public before the election campaign. SSMP Project Manager Matt Pearson called that a "red herring".

Councillors got a copy on August 24. The CVC will make a presentation about the report to councillors next Tuesday, September 14 at 2 pm. It is open to the public.

I have written 12 columns on sewer-related issues since early 2009, so if you want some background before the election, go to my website: Just scroll through the topics and click on Sewers. For the SSMP section of the Town site, go to All households should receive an SSMP newsletter this month.