Testing the ground

Inspector Roger Pirtle tests drinking water while performing a point-of-sale inspection in northern Kalkaska County. The point-of-sale inspection includes a check of a home’s septic system and water well before the sale of land.

KALKASKA — Kalkaska County commissioners opted to renege their approval of a Manistee County policy change after having their own attempted change rejected.

The dispute swirls around a hotly contested septic and water well inspection program operated by District Health Department No. 10, but only in the two counties that opted in nearly a dozen years ago — Kalkaska and Manistee. Commissioners in Kalkaska wanted to withdraw from the program, while those in Manistee wanted to make changes to the point-of-sale program.

Kalkaska officials signed off on Manistee’s changes in September. Then Manistee officials voted last month to deny Kalkaska’s withdrawal from the program.

Each of county boards in all 10 counties must sign off of each others’ sanitary code changes because of the way district health departments function.

Incensed Kalkaska County commissioners voted 6-1 on Thursday to change their minds on Manistee’s changes.

“I cannot see Kalkaska County be held hostage in any way,” said commissioner Dave Comai.

“They voted against us. Period,” said commissioner Patty Cox.

Even Stuart McKinnon — former commissioner and chairman when Kalkaska County voted last year to begin the withdrawal process — attended Thursday’s special meeting to voice his disapproval. He encouraged commissioners to rescind their prior approval of Manistee County’s point-of-sale program changes.

“I would not give them the benefit of the doubt,” McKinnon said.

Kalkaska County Board Chairman Kohn Fisher said he’s not sure where the situation would end up after their about-face vote.

Tom Reichard, the health district’s environmental health director, said Friday that he’s not sure, either. It’s unknown whether Kalkaska County commissioners’ vote to change their minds on Manistee County’s changes was even legitimate, he said.

“There is a big question mark about it,” Reichard said. “We are going down untraveled terrain here.”

The question is whether the district’s sanitary code was even open for changes by that time. Manistee County’s vote on Oct. 22 officially closed the code, he said.

Health district officials will consult with legal counsel to consider the conundrum, Reichard said.

Comai said should Kalkaska County deny Manistee County’s wishes, perhaps officials there will change their minds on Kalkaska County commissioners’ desired withdrawal.

Manistee County Board Chairman Jeff Dontz said that’s unlikely.

“That’s within their prerogative, I’m guessing,” Dontz said. “I think it’s fair to say our board has spoken on the issue and we are happy with what we have.”

Changes Manistee County commissioners made to their point-of-sale program included the removal of several exemptions to the inspection policy, plus the extension of inspections’ validity from 2 to 3 years. But if they can’t have those changes, they’ll stick with the existing program the way it has been for more than a decade, Dontz said.

“Our concern is their inlet runs to our outlet,” he said.

Officials in Manistee last month noted when they denied Kalkaska County’s requested withdrawal how the two communities share a watershed. That means whatever goes into the water in Kalkaska eventually flows downstream to Manistee County via the Manistee River.

Kalkaska County resident Seth Phillips, who has advocated in favor of the inspections program, said he understands commissioners’ frustrations with not getting their way, but said there’s a more productive way they could react: They could revisit their past discussion to develop an ad hoc committee to improve the program and address criticisms.

Phillips isn’t sure that will happen, though.

“They don’t have an interest in fixing it. They only have an interest in being rid of it,” he said.

Concerns with faulty septic systems include risks associated with fecal contamination of groundwater and surface water bodies that can lead to both human health concerns and environmental degradation.

Reichard said the health district’s board would again discuss the situation during its Nov. 22 meeting in Cadillac.

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