Budget cuts end survey of septic systems

February 16, 1993|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

State budget cuts have forced county health officials to stop surveying older Carroll communities for septic tank failures, which could mean that nobody will spot a need for a public sewage system to protect community health.

"The health risk is the potential for massive failings of septic systems going unrecognized and no preventive action would be able to be taken," said Charles L. Zeleski, the county's assistant director of environmental health.

But Mr. Zeleski said residents of communities where surveys were planned should not be concerned about possible dangers to their health because the program is on hold.

"The surveys are to discover problems that can better be handled on a community basis than on an individual basis. That doesn't mean they can't be handled on an individual basis," he said.

Homeowners with failing septic systems can avoid possible contamination of their own and their neighbors' drinking water by replacing their systems. But no health official will be available to assess whether individual failures in an area point to a need for a public system and a community sewage treatment plant.

Pleasant Valley is an example of how the surveys help health officials spot septic tank failures that can pose community health problems.

Residents' problems with an inadequate, privately-owned community water system in the village northwest of Westminster in the fall of 1990 prompted the health department to check the conditions of septic tanks there.

The survey revealed overflowing septic tanks and discharges of raw sewage into nearby ditches and streams, which led health officials to recommend the installation of public sewerage, in addition to a planned public water system.

County officials are reviewing preliminary engineering reports and looking for additional financing for the estimated $1.2 million project, said Thomas J. Rio, chief of the county Bureau of Building Construction. The county has grants to cover $717,700 of the cost.

Carroll's environmental health staff targeted older communities for its surveys because older septic systems are more likely to fail and begin leaking raw sewage into ground water than those in newer communities.

The department put together a list of target communities 10 years ago, but didn't have adequate staff to begin the surveys until about three years ago, Mr. Zeleski said.

Before the program ground to a halt last fall, after the second round of state budget cuts, the staff had completed surveys on eight communities and begun collecting information in four others.

Surveys were completed in Cranberry, east of Westminster, and in Snydersburg, west of Hampstead, for example. But the data have never been analyzed to determine if community health problems exist, Mr. Zeleski said.

Union Mills, north of Westminster, and Lineboro, north of Manchester, are among the communities still on the list to be studied.

To do the surveys, environmental health workers visited houses and distributed questionnaires to determine the age of existing systems, whether any septic systems were failing and whether lots are large enough to replace failing systems.

Mr. Zeleski said the survey program could be resumed if the environmental health division had additional staffing, but the task doesn't translate easily into how much additional staff would be needed. He estimated that if he could put one worker on the surveys for six months, it could be completed.

Environmental health sanitarians check percolation tests in planned subdivisions to determine whether a house can be built on the lot and what type of septic system will be needed. They also check new tanks before contractors cover them.

But the department has been unable to convey to the public that it is not a consumer protection agency for septic tanks, said Richard Isaac, director of environmental health.

"The primary purpose is to make sure public health is not contaminated, not [to provide] a guarantee to the individual homeowner," Mr. Isaac said.

He said problems in covering the septic tanks after final inspection are a major contributor to the failures of new septic systems, but sanitarians do not remain at the site to watch backhoe operators put on the earth covers.

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