Septic Tanks, Once Subject of Cocktail Party Chatter, Now Back in Vogue

Commentary by Tim Rowland

When columnist Erma Bombeck published her book “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank” in the mid-’70s, she was trafficking in suburban, comedic gold. Septic systems were universal — iconic even — and as close as a waste disposal system could come to being a real-for-sure chunk of Americana.

Even in the nicest homes, men sipping scotch would gather around the hearth to discuss drain fields. Your car might have the biggest engine on the block, but if you could only go six months between septic-tank pumpings, you were something less than a man.

There was no speed-dial in those days, but everyone had scrawled in the back of the phone book the name and number of a fellow who owned a backhoe, just in case of a septic emergency. Our man was named “Mr. Rupenthal.” Maybe he had a first name, maybe not, but he definitely had enough excavation equipment to impress a small boy.

Septic systems work like this: Waste goes into a large, underground tank where the heavy duty yuck sinks to the bottom and the residual water drains into maybe three or four perforated pipes from where it leaches into the soil. There is a certain subterranean alchemy involved in getting them to work. Even then they were closely watched by health departments.

My father grew so fed up with the rules that he dug, with a shovel, an “experimental” drain field that he read about in Popular Mechanics. Very likely there were U.S. double agents committing treason at that time who would have served shorter sentences than dad would have received had he been caught.

As public sewer lines began creeping vine-like into the suburbs, septic systems lost the status that comes with being an all-important part of housing infrastructure. An entire generation has come and gone without knowing the pleasure of seeing swampy gray liquid oozing up beneath the swing set like Jed Clampett’s “bubbling crude.”

Septic systems for a time were forgotten, but not gone.

Today, they are back in the public consciousness, not as a workhorse waste-disposal system, but as another bad guy in terms of Chesapeake Bay pollutants. Which, of course, they are. The EPA’s Rich Batiuk says that septic systems are a notch below primary offenders such as sewage-treatment plants and agriculture waste, but they nevertheless present a danger that needs to be taken seriously. It’s believed that a house on septic allows 10 times the nitrogen to seep into the groundwater as a house on public sewer.

The EPA says three states—Maryland, Delaware and Virginia—have taken steps toward curbing the proliferation of septic systems, to the cheers of environmentalists and the horrified gasps of country folk. In March, the Maryland General Assembly shelved, for now, a proposal to ban septic systems on developments of five or more homes. The measure will assuredly be back, after lawmakers have had the chance to study the issue.

Still, septic systems represent a sizable chunk of the Bay watershed waste disposal. The EPA estimates that about 25 percent of the homes in the watershed — or 2.3 million — rely on septic systems. More sobering, that number is rapidly climbing. Another 800,000 systems are expected to be dug in the next 20 years, an increase of 35 percent.

Public sewer might have caught up to the suburbs, but now the suburbs are leapfrogging public sewer. Although it has been slowed by the national housing crisis, the trend has been toward rural ridge tops bristling with “McMansions” like plates on the spine of a stegosaurus. These homes have problems that transcend septic. They generally gobble up land 5 acres at a time, not to mention their associated energy and transportation inefficiencies. It is indeed hard to feel sorry for these developments when cracking down on septic systems.

But at the same time big and rich developments are being scrubbed, it would be a mistake to throw country people out with the wastewater. In rural counties, lawmakers have been merciless in their attacks on anti-septic proposals, which they view as a job killer and an assault on private property rights. One Frederick County, Md., delegate called the proposed Maryland ban the worst bill he’d seen in 25 years.

There is hyperbole involved, naturally, but the danger is that septic bans, if too harsh, could make country life unaffordable for people of limited means. That’s the economics of reduced supply. Land prices in many areas have already made it difficult for people raised in rural locations to stay there. It’s proper that all sources of pollution, including septic systems, be controlled. It’s also proper that country life be protected at. The goal should be inclusive of both ideals.

Tim Rowland is a columnist for the Hagerstown (Md.) Herald-Mail and author of Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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