Program planned to offer grants for septic system replacement Fund set up to help low-income homeowners

May 14, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

For Carroll County homeowners on low or fixed incomes who rely on septic systems, a breakdown can mean a health threat.

Owners of homes built in the 1960s and earlier may face a more difficult problem: not enough land to replace a conventional system and not enough income to afford an alternative.

The Carroll County Health Department is addressing the problem by offering qualifying homeowners grants for alternative septic systems, which can cost two to five times as much as a $2,500 to $3,000 conventional system.

The alternative disposal fund contains $6,000 to start a grant program that will help defray costs, said Charles L. Zeleski, the county's director of environmental health. A 1996 state law finances the fund with up to 10 percent of percolation test application fees.

Many homes that require alternative systems are owned by people with low incomes, according to the Health Department. Grants will be limited to people with incomes no higher than 3 1/2 times the federal poverty level, currently $10,562 in annual income for a two-person household.

Nationally, about one in four houses is on a septic system rather than public sewer service. In Carroll County, 1990 census data showed 16,900 households on public sewer systems and 25,900 on private septic systems.

Failed septic systems pose a health threat, said Zeleski. If the sewage enters the ground water before the system can filter it, waste can contaminate drinking water.

"Naturally, anyone who draws on this ground water has the potential for illness, potential disease-causing organisms," Zeleski said.

Raw waste can also bubble up in a yard because the septic system can't filter the waste, again posing a threat of disease, he said.

"The third way a system can fail is that it backs up into the house. The health risk [of a backup] is limited from our perspective, because of limited exposure, but it's just as serious to the individual," Zeleski said.

Alternative systems that have been developed to answer specific problems include low-pressure pipe systems, typically used on rocky or shallow soil, that use pumps to distribute effluent evenly and prevent the soil from being saturated; mounds, which are just what they say, man-made hillocks that filter wastes before they enter ground water; and constructed wetlands, where reeds and other aquatic plants provide a natural waste filtering system.

Applications for grants are available at the Bureau of Environmental Health, 290 S. Center St., Westminster 21157 or by calling 410-876-1884.

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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