Health Department seeks attention to septic-tank problems

Apr. 07, 2014 @ 08:25 PM

Hoping to forestall future evictions, Durham Department of Public Health officials say they want to work with local banks and the County Commissioners to create a program that would subsidize septic-system repair and replacement.
More than 3,000 septic systems in rural Durham are over 30 years old, putting them at risk of a costly-for-the-homeowner failure, said Chris Salter, the department’s environmental health director.
“All these systems will fail,” Salter said, adding that they last longer in Durham County than the state-average of about 15 years because regulators here are careful about where they allow them. “They do not last forever.”
When they give out, a homeowner can face bills that in extreme cases can top $35,000. The Health Department is in charge of issuing permits for most septic systems, and when it knows of failures sometimes has to seek a court order requiring repairs.
In extreme cases, if the owner can’t afford the cost, he or she has to vacate the property.
County attorneys handle the legal proceedings and are supporting the Health Department in the quest for a solution.
“It’s always a legal conundrum,” said Bryan Wardell, assistant county attorney. “You’ve got the problem and have to address it, but when it comes to my office there’s only one alternative: Get an injunction to force them to abandon the property or take some fairly expensive measure to correct the problem.”
Salter and his boss, Health Director Gayle Harris, suggest looking to other counties and states that have set up programs to provide low- or no-interest loans for replacement systems.
Most of the programs have failed, having relied for capital initially on grant funding that evaporated after the recession hit in 2008.
But the Health Department has “touched base with lending institutions” that’d be willing to participate if the county joined them, Salter said.
He didn’t elaborate, but Harris later said the department has “been working with Self-Help credit on an opportunity” and needs the commissioners’ support to continue developing a proposal.
None of the commissioners voiced an objection during Monday’s briefing, but a couple stressed that any such program should be means-tested and have a strong problem-prevention component.

Many homeowners who rely on septic systems don’t realize their holding tanks need to be pumped out on a regular basis to ensure they continue to work efficiently, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said.

She added that she and her husband, a water-resources expert at Duke University, lived in a rural part of Durham for seven years and had their system pumped twice in that time. They found that many of their neighbors had owned their homes for a decade or more and hadn’t had the job done even once.

“They were asking for trouble,” Reckhow said, adding that a septic tank “requires regular maintenance, no ifs, ands or buts.”