More bills seek to limit mandatory inspections for Indiana septic systems

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This graphic shows how septic tanks and leach fields operate.

Provided graphic

Among the bills awaiting additional action from Indiana lawmakers in the back half of the legislative session are two measures that seek to further limit inspection mandates for residential septic systems.

Republicans said the bills are meant to “clean up” and “clarify” existing state policy. But critics worry that fewer inspections could increase the number of failing septic systems in Indiana, threatening local communities and their water sources.

House Bill 1352, authored by Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, follows up legislation passed during the 2023 session. The new bill ensures that inspections of septic systems are only allowed after installation if required by the manufacturer, requested by the owner, required by federal or another state law, or if there is a complaint filed with the health department.

A separate proposal, House Bill 1329, would prevent a local health department or other government entity from requiring inspections of a property’s septic system when there is a sale or transfer of the property.

Bill author Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, said it “does not change” current policy but “makes it very clear that it doesn’t matter what local ordinance it’s in — they just cannot mandate any inspection as a condition of the sale.”

“We’re talking about government saying, as a condition to sell your property, we’re going to require that you inspect your septic system,” Pressel said. “Why don’t we require a home inspection? I think that’s also good — should government get in the business of that? Should government also inspect our cars before we trade those? I don’t think that’s government’s role.”

“That’s the premise of what we did last year. This is not government’s role, and it’s totally up to you, the consumer, to do your due diligence,” he continued. “If a bank wants to put this in place, the consumer has an option. They can go to a different bank. They could go to a different lender — that’s totally on them. But when government steps in and says to sell your property, we want this inspection and there’s no criteria for the inspections — no.”

Bringing ‘clarity’ to existing septic system laws

Pressel’s bill follows up policies adopted last year that “overhauled” Indiana’s septic system laws. That included a prohibition on local health departments from passing residential onsite sewage systems ordinances that are stricter than the state’s.

A carveout was also made for Hoosier property owners to override local health department decisions about new septic system installations and existing systems that have failed — as long as they have a paid consultant who agrees with them.

Septic systems are designed to collect household wastewater from toilets, sinks, showers, and other drain flows into an underground tank. Solid waste settles on the bottom of the tank, while the remaining liquid flows into an absorption field before seeping into the surrounding soil.

There are more than 800,000 such systems in Indiana, according to the Indiana Department of Health (IDOH).

Many are found in rural areas of the state, but some also exist in urban areas, per a report by the Indiana Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. Indianapolis, for example, recorded 17,000 systems as of 2019.

But Megan Freveletti, an attorney with the Conservation Law Clinic at Indiana University’s Mauer School of Law, emphasized that failing septic systems “have plagued Indiana for decades.”

The state health department estimates that approximately 200,000 of those disposal systems are inadequate, have failed or are in the process of failing — putting environmental and public health at risk.

Health officials warn that every failing septic system can discharge more than 76,000 gallons of untreated wastewater annually into the state’s groundwaters and surface waters. Contaminated water can breed E. Coli and harmful bacteria.

“We do not believe that prohibiting a local government from having the type of septic inspection ordinance mentioned in this bill is the proper way to address this issue,” Freveletti said. “Local government should have the ability to set the standards they see fit to address problems in their communities, especially those with extremely detrimental effects to the environment and human health.”

David Bottorff, executive director of the Association of Indiana Counties, additionally maintained “there’s a value in the public knowing that septic systems are functioning properly.”

He said that as an alternative — if not at the point of sale — “it could be useful” for counties to have a program “where they do systemic inspections to make sure that they’re functioning appropriately.”

Pressel maintained, though, that “the policy of inspections” is not up for debate because “that’s already been done” in previous legislation. Rather, he’s trying to make the current law “more clear.”

“I don’t disagree that (not) having an inspection is a bad idea. I think it’s a great idea,” Pressel said. “What I don’t like is government saying that as a condition of the sale of your property, this must take place, and there are no guidelines to that inspection. So that’s really what we’re talking about.”

Pressel’s bill advanced from the House in an 82-14 vote and would immediately take effect if approved by the General Assembly and signed by the governor.

A ‘clean up’ bill

Morris said his House Bill 1352 is “kind of a cleanup bill from last year.”

During committee discussion, Morris acknowledged that manufacturer inspections — like those for some wetland systems — could still be required, but said the measure would allow Hoosiers more flexibility when building “leisure bathrooms,” for example.

“Let’s say you want to put a garage up. And if you live in a rural county … where you have a septic system, you go to pull a permit … and as you’re working through the process with your engineer and builder, you decide to put a bathroom into that garage. That’s where some concerns open up,” Morris said, noting that under current state law, “you need to basically show proof that your septic system is functioning and operating.”

“So, you go through that process and show proof .. and then it’s discovered that you now have opened yourself up to an inspection on your septic system every three years, and that the government’s actually going to charge you $150 in some counties to have this inspection done,” he continued. “Many Hoosiers decide not to put that bathroom into their pole barn or their garage … and why did they decide not to put that bathroom in? Because they don’t want to have the government coming in, inspecting their septic system.”

The bill also allows for a commercial, nonresidential onsite sewage system to be installed on a lot if there is at least one site suitable for the installation.

Kyle Nix, president of the Indiana Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association, said the group supports the bill.

The House proposal was amended on the floor to clarify who can carry out the required inspections inspections. The latest draft also sets a limit on how much a health department can charge for the inspections.

Pressel, who offered the amendment, said the change brought “all” stakeholders “to either aggressively neutral, neutral or supportive” on the bill.

If enacted, the bill takes effect July 1.

The proposal is now in the Senate, where it will have to be heard and passed out of committee before getting approval from the full chamber.

By Casey Smith – The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.