Health board: Septic law changes intended to protect residents

The Brown County Board of Health has written a new draft of the county’s septic system law, which hasn’t been overhauled in 20 years — and it is still in the process of tweaking it.

Preventing a public health emergency is the primary aim in making changes to the law, health board members say.

“It hasn’t been that many years since polio was an epidemic in this country. It’s spread through feces. We all know we see often new diseases, new problems coming up,” board member Cathy Rountree said.

“Failed septics are a health issue.”

Consumer protections are also part of it, health board chairman Jim Zimmerly said.

The board wants to prevent unsuspecting homebuyers from purchasing a property with a septic system that’s too small and likely to fail. That’s the reason for adding requirements to the ordinance that would kick in when someone sells a home.

Many of the changes to the septic ordinance mirror state law, which has changed in several ways since the 1997 local law was written, health board member Thomi Elmore said.

A few points are more stringent than state law. Elmore said that’s needed because of the soil makeup and hills Brown County has; septic systems aren’t as easy to install or keep working here as they may be in other parts of Indiana.

The health board and a previous board of county commissioners tried rewriting the septic code in 2012 in 2013, but that law was found to be invalid by Brown Circuit Judge Judith Stewart in 2015 because it was not properly published.

The commissioners and health board went through the new draft point by point during a nearly four-hour meeting Feb. 28.

RELATED STORY: Key changes in ordinance

STATE CODE: Septic rules in place statewide (PDF)

Several members of the public attended, including a septic system installer and representatives from the planning and zoning office, Area Plan Commission, Brown County Redevelopment Commission and Brown County Regional Sewer District Board.

The commissioners and health board have scheduled another work session for 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, and county commissioner Diana Biddle said she wants to know what the “dealbreakers” are before the commissioners go any further.

Before any new law could take effect, it is required to go through public hearings and be published. This draft has not progressed to either of those points yet.

The issues

Most homes in Brown County handle wastewater through septic systems on each property. Only three areas have public sewers: in Nashville town limits, Gnaw Bone and Helmsburg.

The Brown County Board of Health — made up of doctors, nurses and a pharmacist — is responsible for looking out for public health threats, Elmore said. The board oversees the work of the Brown County Health Department.

Two of the department’s three specialists are working on septic issues, said John Kennard, who’s been doing that work for almost 19 years.

The health department doesn’t have a comprehensive, countywide list of failing septic systems. More than one group has asked for such a list over the years, including the sewer district board.

But based on surveys in concentrated areas — the Coffey Hill and Orchard Hill neighborhoods before they were annexed into town in 2010 — Kennard said they have reason to believe there are high rates of septic failure all over the county.

All septic systems have a lifespan which can be shortened or lengthened depending on how well the systems are taken care of, he said.

Not everyone who moves into Brown County might know how to take care of a septic system or what their particular system’s limits are.

When systems fail, they leech human waste onto the homeowner’s property, a neighboring property or into water, Zimmerly said.

When failures happen in great numbers, that’s a particular concern for public health officials because of the potential for a widespread public health problem, Kennard said.

“Four years in a row we’ve had a West Nile population of mosquitoes in Brown County,” he said. “If the weather turns ‘right,’ we could have a disaster here, and when the papers report a West Nile Virus outbreak, they won’t say it’s in Bean Blossom, they will say it’s in Brown County,” which would hurt the county’s tourism industry, he said.

Zimmerly said it’s never the health board’s aim to kick someone out of their home when a septic failure is found.

He said the board has been “very sympathetic” in working with people to try to resolve the issue and keep them in their home. Low-interest loans and grants are available to do such work, he said.

The best option all around would be to have everyone on a public sewer system, but that isn’t an option right now, Zimmerly said.

More coordination

Since the Feb. 28 meeting was advertised as a “work session” between the health board and commissioners, the boards did not take public comment until they had read through all 19 pages of the draft ordinance — more than two-and-a-half hours in.

Conversation became heated between members of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and Brown County Area Plan Commission and the health board/commissioners’ table.

RDC member Tim Clark wanted to know why other boards weren’t brought in at an earlier stage of the ordinance rewriting process to give input.

Certain additions to the ordinance could make the job of economic development harder, he said. Clark also said there appeared to be a lack of hard data about how many septic systems are failing, and he wondered how real any possibility of a public health threat would be.

If there are so many areas of the county where septic systems are currently not working well or aren’t able to work well because of the soil and topography, a plan should be formed for how to expand sewer service to more of the county, Clark said.

By this time, Evan Werling, president of the regional sewer board, had left the meeting, but Kennard replied that the sewer board needs to “get its act together” so that countywide sewer service can eventually happen. Now and for about two decades, volunteers have been working on getting sewer in Bean Blossom; but that board is also responsible for all areas of the county that don’t currently have sewer.

Area Plan Commission member Paul Navarro also said public input was lacking into the new draft, to which Biddle replied that was why the commissioners were holding this work session, to learn more about it.

Navarro also accused Biddle of trying to fly through the document too quickly and not being dedicated enough to the job, when she said she had been at work since 7 a.m.

Rountree said Clark’s comment about needing a master plan for sewer service was a “reasonable question,” but as the health board, “we can’t make this type of decision on a dollars-and-cents basis. We have to think about what could happen in a worst-case scenario,” and some sort of fix needs to be put in place sooner rather than later.

Commissioner Dave Anderson said he’d also heard concerns that the new law could “inhibit the growth of the county.”

“Absolutely not,” Elmore said. “If you don’t have clean and air and soil and good infrastructure — and this is part of the infrastructure of the county — you don’t have a good economy.”

Resident Clint Studebaker challenged all the public officials at the meeting to “get interactive,” set up a retreat and figure out how to fix the problems, because the “science is scary as hell.”

“You need other groups that are involved in this, that have an interest and have a purpose behind what they’re doing, get all of them together and keep going with this,” he said.

Next work session

Who: Brown County Commissioners and Brown County Board of Health

When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 14

Where: County Office Building, second-floor Salmon Room

Open to public? Yes, but work sessions aren’t necessarily open to public comment. However, the boards allowed comments toward the end of the Feb. 28 work session on this topic. Other, formal public hearings will take place before any new ordinance is passed.

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.