A new grant program, funded by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, is available for a limited time to Lucas County residents who need to replace a failed home sewage treatment system, which can spread bacteria and nutrients into rivers and lakes.
On Jan. 1, 2015, the state passed a law with new sewage treatment regulations, Jerry Bingham, supervisor of environmental health at the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, said to Oregon Council earlier this month. “Within those laws, we had to develop an operation and maintenance program. An operation and maintenance program basically helps people maintain their septic systems so they can last for many years.”
The county is assessing septic systems to determine their type, age, condition, and location, he said.
“There are no fees or upgrades required at this time. We’re just simply going out there to look at the systems and perhaps educate the homeowners. We want to decrease the possibility of system failure, ensure that all systems within Lucas County are operating properly, and then allocate grant money to help people who may have failing systems,” he said.
The health department also wants to match up with older septic records on file.
“We’re mass mailing letters to homeowners who own septic systems. Basically, the letters state we’ll be out in their neighborhoods, and we’re looking at septic systems, and that they shouldn’t be surprised we’re out there. Also, it’s to encourage people to make an appointment. We feel that the assessment goes much better when people make an appointment and that they are there with us. That way, we can show them what we’re looking for and perhaps help them understand what they have. However, homeowners do not need to be present if they don’t want to be,” said Bingham.
He said sanitarians taking the assessments must have identification with them at all times that show they are with the Lucas County Health Department.
“Unfortunately, at the health department, we don’t always have identification on the vehicle. But they should be properly dressed and should have IDs. They’ll go up to the door and explain why we’re there.”
Assessments, he added, take up to 30 minutes or less.
“It won’t take very long. If nobody is home, we leave a brochure and a door hanger that requests an assessment be done and that they call the health department. If people don’t want us to do the assessment, we leave. We’ve had quite a few people say `we don’t want you to do the assessment,’” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people who just don’t want us on their property, don’t want anything to do with us. I don’t know if they think we’re going to make them do something. We’re not going to make you do anything.”
During the assessment, if there are any concerns, the health department may recommend repairs, he said.
“Perhaps there’s a crack in the lid and we would recommend they replace the lid. Or we noticed that there are no risers on the septic tank. Without risers, it’s very hard to have the tank pumped out. We are not making any of this mandatory at all. It’s just a recommendation,” he said.
There have been 544 assessments completed so far in the county, which he said was a low number.
“What we’re finding out is that the majority of systems are leach fields. So that’s a good thing. We know the systems are being treated on the soil and are not being discharged somewhere.”
He noted that 28 percent of the systems do not have risers.
“This is important to point out because without risers, people aren’t able to maintain their systems, they can’t take their lids off, they can’t pump the tanks out. Tanks should be pumped every three to five years. If they are not pumped, it ruins the system.”
There are approximately 13,000 septic systems in the county.
Lucas County residents are eligible to apply for the grant. Preference is given to low income households. For those whose incomes are at or below 100 percent of the poverty level, the grant includes total replacement costs; for those whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the poverty level, the grant will cover 85 percent of the costs; and for those who are at or below 300 percent of the poverty level, the grant will cover 50 percent of the costs, said Bingham.
Under the terms of the grant, the homeowner does not have to pay up front and then wait to be reimbursed. The program reimburses the installers. The state grant to the county, which totals $300,000, can also be used to repair septic systems.
Bingham said the grant will only be available for a limited time. Any remaining balance reverts back to the Ohio EPA. Last year, the county received $300,000 to assist homeowners with failing septic systems in the Swan Creek watershed area. “We probably helped 14 or 15 people with that grant. And we only used maybe $150,000,” he said. The remainder of the grant was returned to the state.
“I want to keep that money here in the community. Hopefully, we can help more people out,” he said.
Councilwoman Sandy Bihn said she appreciated Bingham’s presentation, but expressed concerns that not enough was being done to fix failing septic systems.
“It reminds me of the way we’re approaching agriculture in the lake - with voluntary efforts. If we’re serious about protecting our waters, we cannot allow failing septic systems to continue to leach into the waters. I know in some of the counties along the lake, like Huron County, it is estimated that there’s 100,000 failing systems. That means it’s leaching into our ditches. It’s not healthy for the waters at all. If we don’t get more serious about doing something, we’re going to continue to see waters degrade, problems for drinking water, recreation, and perhaps someday for our fish,” said Bihn, who is the executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper Inc. “It sounds like a good program. The few that it helps, great. But there’s a far greater need. We need to provide funding and financing. But we also need to protect our waters if we’re serious about water as a resource in this area for development and sustainability.”
For more information on the grant, contact the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department/Environmental Health Division, at 419 213-4100 or email Bingham at Binghamj@co.lucas.oh.us.