Mahoning County Public Health’s environmental division experienced a busy 2022 as it sent letters to about 17,000 Mahoning County property owners with basic-level septic systems to alert them they are required to participate in a new state-mandated septic system operation and maintenance program.
The good news, said Colton Masters, health board environmental health director, is 82 percent responded to the letters, provided their contact and other information and paid their $30 annual registration fee.
That was a significant response rate, Masters said.
“We were told by other jurisdictions to expect maybe about 40 percent or below your first year because people don’t understand it,” Masters said.
Masters attributes the high response rate in Mahoning County to the public outreach he and his staff carried out throughout 2022.
“That is why the education component was so important — to do so much public outreach and to answer every phone call and every email and do every interview with people who came to us,” Masters said.
“It’s because we wanted to get that message out and help everybody understand.”
The health department rolled out the new operation and maintenance program starting in January 2022 with Austintown, Jackson, Milton and Coitsville townships being notified that the program was starting in their area and they were required to participate. A small number of septic owners in Youngstown, Struthers and Campbell also were notified.
The rest of the townships in the county were notified in the second, third and fourth quarters of the year to make it manageable for staff to address all of the questions.
The letters informed septic tank owners that they needed to contact a registered sewage pumper / hauler from an approved list and have the tanks pumped and / or inspected sometime within the coming three years.
The letter informed septic owners that the program requires them to have a service provider check the sludge levels in the tank or tanks and pump when needed; check the surface for erosion, settling or evidence of surface water infiltration; check for ponding; or observe operation and maintenance requirements specified by the manufacturer of the system.
NOT ALL HAPPY
Masters said not everyone was happy to learn the program was starting, but “I can say maybe 95 percent, once we explained the program to them, said ‘You know what I understand what you need. I get it, not a problem at all. I will get my tank pumped and get you the report.
“I will get the check mailed to you. I will get whatever you need,” Masters said. “The key was taking the time to answer people’s questions.
They were generally property owners who knew their septic system was probably going to need to be replaced.
“They knew they just had a straight pipe out to a ditch,” Masters said.
“They said ‘Well, now you’ve found me. You know what’s out here. You are going to make me fix it,’” Masters said.
Masters estimates fewer than 200 property owners fall into that category. The computer system and database that keeps track of septic systems does not track how many systems have been identified as needing to be replaced, Masters said, so he does not know a specific number.
The good news is that such property owners have three years to make the changes.
“They are taking those three years and starting to get their contractors in line,” Masters said.
Septic-system installers told Masters last summer they had seen an uptick in septic system customers. Some contractors were booked until the middle of this year with customers needing their septic systems replaced, Masters said.
Additional septic service providers also are expanding their service area into Mahoning County to meet the need, Masters said. Some are from Trumbull, Portage and Geauga counties.
“We’re happy for that,” Masters said, adding that it’s possible those contractors also can remain their presence in Mahoning County to maintain the systems.
David Eaken, owner of All Aspects Excavating of the Lordstown area, which installs and maintains septic systems in Mahoning, Trumbull and Portage counties, said he feels that many septic owners in Mahoning County don’t understand the new program.
He said he understands the program and tells customers “step-by-step” what they can and cannot do, but he wishes the customers were being better educated by the health department because he gets “caught in the middle.”
He said many systems in Mahoning County have had no service done on them in 30 years, so some of those have to be replaced, others do not. He said some of the systems that have to be replaced are because the homeowner added on to the house but did not update the septic system as required.
A representative from another company who did not want to be identified said it is apparent that most companies have seen an increase in calls from homeowners needing regular service visits to their property.
“We got more customers and calls,” the representative said. “That’s the biggest (change.) We inspect the system to make sure it’s working in the proper order.”
The representative said it did not appear that the new septic program resulted in a significant increase in the replacement of septic systems. The main driver of that is when a home is sold, the representative said.
“The health department runs a dye test. If the system is outdated or if it doesn’t pass the test, then they have to replace if it can’t be repaired.” When home sales are up, septic tank replacements rise, the representative noted.
A service provider told The Vindicator last summer that one of the biggest challenges is for low-income septic-system owners to maintain or replace them.
There’s some parts of the county that don’t have money,” he said.
The health department thought a little more than 17,000 septic systems were in the county when the program rolled out at the beginning of 2022. After sending out letters and talking to property owners, the number actually dropped by about 3,000 — to 14,000. There were multiple reasons this happened, Masters said.
One is that many properties had a septic system at one time but received sewers and got rid of their septic system. Some took out a building permit for a house but never built it. And in some cases, a property owner did a lot split and built one house but never developed the other lots, Masters said.
The responses to the letters increased has improved accuracy of county septic-system records.
We cleaned up our database and records considerably,” Masters said. “In cases where a property owner got a letter and notified the health department that they no longer had a septic system, a health department inspector went out to verify the information and remove the address from the system.
Masters said some people added themselves to the program who did not get a letter.
“We had phone calls where someone said ‘My neighbor got this letter. Why didn’t I get one?’”
The health department took down the address and sent then a letter. Frequently it led to the property calling out a septic-service provider to have the system evaluated. In some instances, the septic system had not been serviced in many years.
It would lead to the service provider giving the health department information on the type and size of the system, pumping it and providing other services if needed.
The rollout phase in 2022 was not intended as a way to “go out randomly scour the neighborhoods looking for houses we didn’t have in the program,” Masters said. “We don’t have the time for that. However, we will continue to find systems through the real-estate program and or our additions program.”
The addition program is where a person comes to the building department for a building permit. If it is a house with a septic system, the information about the building permit goes to the health department, which then will check to see what type of septic system the property has and “make sure you know what you need to do to take care of it,” Masters said.
As 2022 went on, the health department refined the letters they sent to property owners.
“We made simple changes in the wording that helped people understand what we needed from them. And the more they understood, the better the program was,” he said.
“Most of the people who were agitated or angry were because they didn’t understand the program or the purpose behind it. I can say with quite a bit of confidence that now the public has a much better understanding of the program, what we need from them and the reason for rolling it out to begin with.”
He said he thinks it is human nature for some people to avoid servicing their septic systems.
“It’s something people don’t think about all the time because it’s not top of mind,” he said. “These tanks are typically buried. They are not easily accessible. And every year you think ‘Oh, I should get that done,’ and you ’ and you move past it and it just kind of gets put on the back burner for another year. That’s understandable but that’s why we need this program,” he said.
Though 2022 was focused on the most basic type of septic systems, known as Level 1 systems, the health department’s main goal this year is to address the more sophisticated systems — which are classified as either Level 2 or Level 3, many of which require an Environmental Protection Agency permit.
As an example, some Level 2 or Level 3 systems discharge wastewater into a drinking-water system, such as a lake. Health department sanitarians take samples at the discharge point of such septic systems to verify that the discharges are at safe levels, Masters said.
“You want to make sure that whatever is being discharged out is at least to the Environmental Protection Agency standards of cleanliness. Something like a ultraviolet light could go bad and you might not even realize it and then be discharging (septic water) that is not safe.”
Ultraviolet lights are used as a disinfection method for destroying disease-causing organisms in wastewater.
Owners of level 2 and 3 systems got a letter in 2022 telling them how the program would change in 2023, Masters said. Such systems were already in the program, but there are still changes affecting them in 2023, Masters said.
The biggest change is that the owner now pays their septic fees to the health department instead of to a service provider.
Source: the vindy