GREENFIELD — Be sure you don’t wear open-toed shoes when you visit the home of Jaime Saylor and Joel Zumbolo.
With raw sewage coming up through their yard and dumping into Brandywine Creek, the couple have to watch where they step.
Failing septic systems in their small neighborhood across from Riley Park are causing potential health hazards and presenting a quandary for homeowners, who technically don’t live in the city limits. Unable under current regulations to upgrade their septic systems, their best recourse is to be annexed into the city. Then, they’ll be able to get sewers, like other nearby neighborhoods that benefit from the city’s boundary lines.
The city wants to help, and officials are working on an annexation plan for 26 homes on East Main Street and around the corner on Morristown Pike. For Saylor, it can’t come soon enough.
“You can smell it all the time now, it’s gotten so bad,” said Saylor, walking one day this week along the gravel drive of her home just off Main Street across from Riley Park.
At issue is the age of septic systems in an area where homes are built close together. Septic systems are monitored by the Hancock County Health Department, and environmental health specialist Letsy McCarthy said several of the systems in the area are simply old and deteriorating. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact location of the problem without major excavation, but the hilly terrain on the banks of Brandywine Creek is allowing raw sewage to flow onto Saylor’s property. Her yard is directly adjacent to Brandywine Creek, and the raw sewage is flowing into the waterway, too.
Several of the homes in the area were built in the 1950s and 1960s, but these days, new septic systems require more space, McCarthy said. The health department, which approves permits for new systems, is suggesting the area be drawn into the city limits because most of the properties don’t have enough space for new septic systems.
“It’s basically because of lack of space in some of the lots,” McCarthy said. “Septic systems are generally put on your own property, and some of them, they just don’t have a yard or property to put the septic system on. It’s hard to tell what exactly is there other than the sewage coming up and going out to the creek.”
The situation is not uncommon across the state, which has about 800,000 on-site sewage disposal systems, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Bruno Pigott, assistant commissioner over the office of water quality at the agency, said septic tanks fail for a number of reasons. If they’re not maintained properly, they can back up, and sewage can come out of toilets or into back yards and waterways.
Discharging raw sewage into waterways is against state environmental codes, he added, but he was pleased city officials were taking action to remedy the problem.
Because the legal process of an annexation is lengthy, Vincent says this proposal probably won’t come before the city council for final approval until early 2015. But because of the severity of the problem, the city will move quickly on running new sewer lines out to the area once it’s annexed, said Mike Fruth, director of utilities.
Homeowners will shoulder the cost: They’ll pay $1,900 per acre for an availability fee, plus $1,200 to hook into the city’s system. If a homeowner can prove an updated septic system that is not contributing to the problem is in place, that person won’t have to hook up to the city sewer, city engineer Karla Vincent said.
Saylor, who said she was initially against an annexation because she didn’t want to pay city tax rates for services, is now glad at least something is being done. Saylor is an environmental attorney and has been trying to find some kind of resolution to the problem since spring 2013. Her street, Valley Drive, is a quiet, tree-covered private gravel drive where Saylor has lived since 2005. She has an updated septic system that is not contributing to the problem. But the smell and the muck has grown unbearable in recent months, especially when it rains.
Typically, Greenfield officials prefer to annex areas when all of the property owners are in agreement with the annexation proposal. This time, 13 of the 26 property owners have signed a petition asking to be annexed.
Fruth acknowledged a remonstrance is possible, but he said the circumstances of this petition are extraordinary.
“Any time you do an annexation, people can remonstrate, but this particular situation is one of the few I can recall trying to annex where it’s a matter of public health and safety,” Fruth said. “They need to hook onto a sewer of some kind.”
The Greenfield City Council heard the proposal for the first time Wednesday. It asked Vincent to draw up a formal proposal for annexation.
“It doesn’t sound like we have much of a choice,” council member Judy Swift said.
HOW A HOUSEHOLD SEPTIC SYSTEM WORKS:
The watertight container made of concrete, fiberglass or polyethylene holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle to the bottom of the septic tank – forming sludge. Oil and grease float to the surface as scum. The design prevents sludge and scum from leaving the tank before its ready. Wastewater exits the tank and is discharged into the drainfield for further treatment by the soil. The partially treated wastewater is pushed further every time new wastewater enters the tank.
PROTECT YOUR SEPTIC SYSTEM:
1. Regularly inspect your system and pump your tank as necessary.
2. Use water efficiently.
3. Don’t dispose of household hazardous wastes in sinks or toilets.
4. Care for your drainfield.
An analysis of a septic system includes these steps:
Locating the system.
Uncovering access holes.
Flushing the toilets.
Checking for signs of back up.
Measuring scum and sludge layers.
Identifying any leaks.
Inspecting mechanical components.
Pumping the tank if necessary.
Paints and solvents
Emptying hot tubs or swimming pools
Water purification and softener systems
WHAT CAN MAKE MY SYSTEM FAIL?
If the amount of wastewater entering the system is more than the system can handle, the wastewater backs up into the house or yard and creates a health hazard.
You can suspect a system failure not only when a foul odor is emitted but also when partially treated wastewater flows up to the ground surface. By the time you can smell or see a problem, however, the damage might already be done.
SEPTIC SYSTEM FAILURE SYMPTOMS:
Check for pooling water or muddy soil around your septic system or in your basement.
Notice whether your toilet or sink backs up when you flush or do laundry.
Notice strips of bright green grass over the drainfield.
Check with a septic system professional and the local health department if you suspect such a failure.