TRAVERSE CITY — A running thread through a septic summit that lured public health, environmental and elected officials from across Michigan was whether and how a statewide sanitary code should develop.
Speaker after speaker at Wednesday’s sold-out Michigan Septic Summit at the Hagerty Center in Traverse City offered their take on the lack of a statewide sanitary code, a distinction that sets Michigan apart from every other state in the country. Some argued a statewide uniform code was the answer, while others said local regulations would be better.
The general consensus was septic systems in rural Michigan should not be left to crumble, where when left unchecked and in disrepair they plop dangerous human pathogens and bacteria in the underground water table. That leads to both health risks and environmental degradation.
“We don’t think it’s a good idea to let these systems go uninspected,” said Grenetta Thomassey, watershed policy director for the Petoskey-based Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.
Thomassey said she doesn’t believe it’s problematic for local regulations to dictate septic maintenance and inspections based on geologic and watershed conditions, so long as something is done everywhere. A state code should require local action and perhaps require periodic inspections, she argued.
Real estate broker Rick Stein, of Re/Max Bayshore Real Estate in Traverse City, agreed with that stance. After all, Michigan has vastly different soil makeup and watersheds when you compare the western stretches of the Upper Peninsula to northern Lower Michigan and downstate regions, he said.
“It’s a real hard thing to do to paint the whole state with the same brush,” Stein said while speaking on a panel about public policy options.
Others argued a minimum statewide standard is needed.
Seth Phillips, Kalkaska County drain commissioner and advocate for the point-of-sale inspection regulations there, said he doesn’t believe a patchwork of codes across the state will be effective. A minimum baseline of state regulations should be established, he contended.
“There’s too much of Michigan being polluted,” Phillips said.
Eric Johnston, environmental health director for the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, said local-level officials had little input with last year’s effort to pass a statewide sanitary code through the Legislature. Michigan needs a statewide minimum standard onto which local regulators can build because a uniform code is “not going to fit all,” he said.
Christine Crissman, executive director of the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, said a state code should compel every health department in the state to create local regulations regarding septic systems.
“Every health department should have what makes sense for their health department,” Crissman said.
A Grand Traverse County Health Department official agreed the ability to do what’s best for each region is best. Perhaps a state code exploring alternative treatment systems should be developed and locals can go from there, said Dan Thorell, the department’s environmental health director.
“Communities should be left to decide if they want to be more restrictive,” he said.
Thorell also said that should state regulations require inspections as often as 3 or 5 years, a big push will be needed for properly trained sanitarians to take on a significant uptick in workload.