The Evolution of Septic Systems Practices in Ohio

By Vedachalam, Sridhar; Hacker, Eli et al. | Journal of Environmental Health, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of Septic Systems Practices in Ohio


Vedachalam, Sridhar, Hacker, Eli, Mancl, Karen, Journal of Environmental Health


Introduction

Soil-based septic systems serve 20%-25% of the households in the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [U.S. EPA], 2008) and about one million homes in Ohio. This translates to about 480 million gallons of treated effluent per day throughout Ohio (Ohio Department of Health, 2008). In its report to the U.S. Congress, however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) stated that onsite septic systems constitute the third most common source of groundwater contamination and that these systems fail due to inappropriate siting, poor design, or inadequate maintenance (U.S. EPA, 1996a). The discharge of partially treated sewage from malfunctioning onsite systems was identified by U.S. EPA as a contributor to excess nutrients in ponds, lakes, and coastal estuaries; contamination of drinking water and groundwater sources; and a cause of several viral and bacterial illnesses through consumption of drinking water contaminated by failing septic systems (U.S. EPA, 1996b, 2000).

In a follow-up report to Congress, U.S. EPA (1997) stated that "adequately managed decentralized wastewater systems are a cost-effective and long-term option for meeting public health and water quality goals, particularly in less densely populated areas." Some communities have successfully utilized onsite systems for wastewater management. Mancl (2002) presented four such success stories from the states of Iowa, Colorado, and California to build the case for adopting onsite systems in rural areas.

The objective of our study was to determine if coordination of laws and regulations, educational programs, and advances in technology can provide homeowners with effective and affordable wastewater treatment systems that protect the public health. To meet this objective, our study worked to deconstruct the formulation of current onsite wastewater treatment policy in Ohio. As of now, Ohio has the oldest sewage rules in the U.S. (Ohio Department of Health, 2008) based on the Ohio Administrative Code (Household Sewage Disposal Systems, 1977).

Materials and Methods

Our study utilized a triangulated inquiry to gather information about the policies governing septic systems in Ohio and the current practices and attitudes of the regulators. Public records of the Ohio legislature and the Ohio Department of Health were primary sources of information. News sources were accessed to verify conflicting information. Further, county health departments in Ohio were surveyed in 2005 about existing practices, attitudes, and educational needs.

The survey questionnaire was prepared using the procedure described by Dillman (1978). The questionnaire booklet consisted of a front cover illustration and seven pages of multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. Prior to distribution, the questionnaire was tested by three experts to ensure that the questions were clear and appropriate. The complete questionnaire is available in Hacker (2007) and can be obtained from the authors. Following Dillman's technique, the questionnaires were distributed to all 88 counties through a four-part mailing process. The first mailing contained a personally addressed and signed cover letter, the questionnaire booklet, and a preaddressed and stamped return envelope. After two weeks, a reminder postcard was sent to all the counties. Two weeks later a second letter, the questionnaire booklet, and a return envelope were sent to those who did not respond. Finally, two weeks later, a second reminder postcard was sent to the remaining nonrespondents.

Results

Ohio's Septic Systems Regulations

Onsite sewage systems in Ohio are regulated through state law and state rules. Local health districts, however, can adopt more stringent regulations depending on their requirements. Chapter 3718 of the Ohio Revised Code (Sewage Treatments Systems, 2006) and chapter 3701-29 of the Ohio Administrative Code (OAC) (Household Sewage Disposal Systems, 1977) govern household and small flow sewage disposal systems in Ohio. …

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