Confronting the Public Health Threat of Septic Tanks

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As climate change amplifies the risks of septic tanks, lawmakers must act to protect their communities.

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Nearly a quarter of American homeowners use underground septic tanks to cleanse and dispose of their human waste. These septic systems face the risk of being submerged by more intense storms and floods as climate change worsens and could wreak havoc on habitats, water supplies, and public health.

A significant portion of the nation’s septic infrastructure is not up to the challenges presented by climate change. As of 2003, at least 20 percent of septic systems malfunctioned to some degree, and that figure has likely only increased since. As the effects of climate change exacerbate the already fragile situation, lawmakers must both strengthen regulations and provide financial assistance to homeowners to protect against septic pollution.

Septic tanks function by leaking wastewater into dry soil, which absorbs and naturally decontaminates the liquid. If the septic tank does not have enough dry soil around it, problems arise.

In coastal areas especially, marshy landscapes and porous, sandy soil make it easy for the runoff from septic tanks to reach nearby lakes or rivers. The excess nitrogen from the septic pollution leads to toxic algal blooms, which can choke out beneficial aquatic species, undermine fishing seasons, and damage tourist economies.

Septic pollution can also seep into the groundwater, contaminating drinking water and spreading disease. In some of the poorest counties in Alabama, for example, an intestinal parasite that was once thought to have been eradicated in the United States managed to survive due to poor sanitation and failing septic systems.

These concerns about the public health risks from septic systems are intensified by climate change. Rising sea levels, more severe rainfall, and more frequent flooding all reduce the amount of dry soil that can detoxify the wastewater. These weather events can also submerge and wash out septic tanks, resulting in widespread contamination.

Fortunately, localities across the United States are taking notice—and several are taking action.

Massachusetts proposed regulations that would require homeowners in nitrogen-sensitive areas, starting with those in Cape Cod, to upgrade or replace their septic systems with the “best available, nitrogen-reducing technologies.” Homeowners are allowed to avoid this burden if their community instead develops a long-term wastewater management program to reduce nitrogen loads. The Town Manager of Barnstable, Massachusetts—a Cape Cod community—said that the state’s proposal would be “the biggest regulatory change I’ve seen in my 33-year career.”

Similarly, regulators in Lake George, New York, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, have proposed new inspections and corrective actions for substandard and failing septic systems. The lake itself, beyond being a tourist destination, serves as the primary source of drinking water for the surrounding communities and has been beset by algal blooms.

Farther south, Virginia’s environmental agency is revisiting its septic regulatory scheme after twenty years of inactivity. The move comes after a 2021 law directed the agency to consider climate change and rising sea levels in its water treatment regulations. And in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law that will provide greater oversight by the state environmental agency and greater funding to repair failing septic systems.

Environmentalists in South Carolina are even taking the matter to court. Three environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the state over the development of new homes with septic tanks near a wildlife refuge. In the complainants’ view, state regulators have failed to check the residential septic tank permitting plan for compliance with regulations that apply to coastal areas.

Yet modernizing regulations of septic systems cannot alone solve all the issues with septic tanks. Governments must also provide financial assistance to enable homeowners to meet the hurdles of any new septic tank regulations.

Septic tanks are enormously expensive. And because septic tanks predominate in rural areas, those smaller local governments often lack the resources to cover the costs of repairs and maintenance. When such upgrades fall on the homeowners, some lower-income families cannot afford to make the needed changes.

This economic divide is often racialized. Consider Lowndes County, Alabama, where the population is 70 percent Black and the median income is $30,000. Roughly half of the residents have “a failing or no sewage system.” Attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice have even recognized that this “disparate burden” on Black residents could merit a violation of federal antidiscrimination laws.

Perhaps the easiest solution would be to address these matters federally, but the Clean Water Act does not empower the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reach septic systems. Until Congress authorizes EPA to act, the patchwork of state and local regulations remains the only form of governmental oversight of septic tanks.

Federal funding could alleviate some of the difficulty that local governments face. The infrastructure law passed in 2021 provided $150 million dedicated to replacing or repairing home septic systems across the country.

EPA also announced a joint initiative with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will run pilot projects in eleven low-income, rural communities, including Lowndes County, Alabama. Under the national initiative, officials will assess each area’s current capacity, develop a long-term plan for wastewater treatment, and help the community take advantage of federal funding opportunities, such as those in the infrastructure law.

These financial investments and the progressive actions of local regulators and activists all along the East Coast are steps in the right direction. Yet more policymakers and regulators must join the commitment to updating wastewater regulation in light of climate change. The time has come not only to update public health standards but also to help citizens be able to afford the measures needed to meet those requirements—for the sake of both their health and the planet’s.