Friday, February 09, 2007

Septic Woes

Damaged septic tanks stopping rebuilding
County: Residents must wait for sewerage
By RYAN LaFONTAINE
rlafontaine@sunherald.com

HANCOCK COUNTY - Rebuilding delayed due to faulty septic tanks

Thousands of property owners hoping to rebuild their homes here will soon find they are stuck between a rock and a smelly place.

At least 95 percent of private septic tanks south of Interstate 10 are no longer environmentally safe and most have been spewing waste into ditches and nearby streams for decades, according to the state Department of Health.

Aside from the stench and the environmental dangers, faulty septic tanks are illegal.

The state has placed a block on new building permits for virtually every property in rural Hancock with a septic tank, south of Interstate 10, preventing homeowners from rebuilding until they can connect to a county sewerage system.

But Hancock is awaiting its share of the $600 million available through the Gulf Regional Water Utility Authority before it can afford to expand the public treatment system to those areas.

Unlike the public sewerage systems found in most cities and contemporary towns, septic tanks are similar to having a miniature sewage-treatment plant on private properties, usually in rural areas not served by a public system.

The archaic tanks are designed to allow solid waste to settle at the bottom, while pipes suck liquids out to a series of trenches below the ground.

But many of the tanks in Hancock have dumped the waste into nearby ditches and streams and even if a homeowner pays for an upgrade - about $4,000 - the soil in much of the county is no longer suitable for septic tanks.

The Hancock Board of Supervisors this week wrestled with the thought of thousands of residents having to wait for a public sewerage system before they can rebuild.

It could take two more years before the county receives its $120 million from the GRWUA and expands its sewerage system, and some political leaders say that's too long a wait.

"They've been (using septic tanks) for 50 years," Supervisor David Yarborough said. "How much more damage can these people do in two more years? I think we need to let these people hook back up until we get sewerage."

Already at least 350 property owners have been denied a building permit to build a home south of the Interstate and reconnect to an outdated septic tank.

Supervisor Lisa Cowand was far less excited about the idea of raw sewage seeping into the ground and dripping into streams and bayous.

"I can't concur with allowing it for two years because you don't think it will do any further degradation," Cowand told Yarborough. "I can't go with that, and I won't go with that."

Before the county will give a building permit to a property owner planning to use a septic tank, the Department of Health must approve the tank. And that's unlikely to happen south of the Interstate, officials said.

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