March 20, 2013

Could septic inspections reduce need for sewers?

As published in The Erin Advocate

A lot of money has been spent on the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP), seeking a vision for Erin's future, and building a case in favour of a sewer system. Many people don't want sewers, but is anyone building a practical case against them?

Is anyone still hoping this problem will go away if we just do nothing? Are local politicians hoping the province will force them to bring in sewers, so it won't be their fault?

It is quite a tangle of issues, including affordable housing, taxes, business development (or survival) and the Town's precious charm, but at the core is a basic question: Can Erin take care of its own waste, while protecting the river?

Private septic systems have been good enough in the past, but environmental standards are higher now, and there are more of us. The amount of pollution caused by septic systems is difficult to measure, but it is still a huge concern for the Ministry of the Environment (MOE).

In a recent letter, the MOE said it had opposed a sewage treatment plant in the past, largely due to "the need to protect the high quality aquatic ecosystem in this branch of the Credit River". But they said, "In a number of instances, development on small lots has now resulted in septic system failure. Given the risk of contamination from these failing systems, MOE has agreed to consider municipal sewage treatment."

They don't sound very enthusiastic about sewage treatment. What if Erin could clean up its act, with properly functioning septic systems in every back yard? Could we make the case that moderate growth and environmental protection could be achieved, without digging sewer trenches and spending 65 million dollars?

SSMP Consultant Matt Pearson paints a bleak picture of the "do nothing" option, predicting declining house prices, no jobs, closing schools, inadequate business taxation and insufficient housing for seniors and young people. Maybe he is right.

"I don't see it working, but you may be able to lobby the government to have big lots on septic systems," he said at a recent public meeting, exploring the possibility that a sewage system is decided to be too expensive. "You might get some growth out of that, but is that good growth?"

The option that is called "do nothing" would in fact take a lot of work, and some extraordinary exemptions from normal standards. What would it take to go this route? I'm not convinced it is possible, but I would like to explore the options. Maybe we could build on smaller lots using more elaborate backyard technology or communal septic beds. Send in your practical ideas as letters to the editor.

Historically, the Town has enforced the Ontario Building Code for the construction of septic systems. But how people maintained those systems has been none of the Town's business. Each homeowner has been solely responsible for their own miniature sewage plant.

That structure has to change. A septic system is not like a roof. Leaks affect the whole community, threatening public health and the environment. There should be Town staff dealing with wastewater issues, whether there is a sewer system or not.

The Ontario Building Code was amended a couple of years ago to provide for mandatory municipal inspection of private septic systems, in "vulnerable areas".

Andrew Harbolt, Erin's Chief Building Official, said the Town is awaiting final approval of those exact areas, through Ontario's Source Water Protection initiative. It is focused on preventing contamination of wells for municipal water systems. The Town will have to decide whether to have inspections done by their own staff, hire a contract inspector, or accept inspection certificates from third parties.

After an inspection, you may get an order to pay for further testing. If your septic system violates the Building Code, you will get an Order to Comply, requiring repair or replacement at your expense. This mandatory program only affects only a small number of properties close to municipal wells. But Council has the authority to extend the inspection system to other areas, or the entire Town.

Should all wells, streams and ponds be protected against faulty septic systems? By promising to force people to fix their septic systems, could the Town convince the MOE that a sewer system is not needed?

There are a number of complications, one being the fact that many properties are too small for a standard septic system under today's standards, and would need a tertiary system costing several thousand dollars extra. I have an idea to offset that cost, which I will explain in a future column. It's an idea that will cost money, but it will be a lot less than $65 million.