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After 30 Years, ‘Septage’ Haulers Attract Notice in Great Falls

The large family homes that overlook historic Colvin Run Road in Great Falls offer a picturesque view of Difficult Run, where troops once foraged for food during the Civil War and equestrians now ride through a Fairfax County streambed park that takes them to the Potomac River.

But some residents recently become aware of another activity that goes on beside the stream below their neighborhood, where a steady procession of trucks arrives throughout the day to connect hoses to a valve that receives “septage:” effluvium collected from the septic tanks that serve in lieu of public sewer in Great Falls.

A county health officials says Fairfax County still has between 25,000 and 30,000 homes that depend on septic tanks; one hauler says that number is much higher when it includes restaurants and commercial shopping centers.

Although Fairfax County requires private residents to have their septic tanks pumped out at least once every five years, commercial users must be visited much more often.

Joe Ragan lives in the neighborhood that overlooks what John Milgrim of the Fairfax County Health Department defines as “an offloading spot for our septic tank pumpout contractors.”

Ragan says haulers both with and without Fairfax County licenses can access a public sewer tie-in alongside Difficult Run on a 24/7/365 basis.

“This dump is located adjacent to wetlands, residential housing, and is within a conservation area and historic district,” Ragan said.

“A great deal of the septic dumping is commercial, not residential,” he said.

Although Fairfax County’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) is working on a plan to install a gate with key-card access and limit the hours for licensed haulers, Ragan says the site should be closed.

As the last unattended septic dumping spot in the county, he said, it risks damage by unauthorized dumping.

“If hazardous materials were dumped at the site, the entire waste water treatment system would be compromised,” Ragan said.

“Instead of upgrading the site, ... it should be closed.

“No investment should be made on this site. The scarce resources of the county are needed elsewhere.”

ALTHOUGH THE GREAT FALLS site is not supervised, “There is nothing unauthorized that we are aware of,” said Tom McFadden of DPWES.

“It is a point where septic haulers can pull up, connect their hoses, and dump into a sanitary sewer line.”

“This site has been there for more than 30 years. I don’t know what the original thinking was to put it there.”

It runs along the stream bed because of the physical characteristic of water to seek its own level.

“Typically, they are located near streams because that is the naturally-occurring low point of any watershed,” McFadden said.

Septage from Great Falls goes into a large trunk sewer, the Potomac interceptor, and ends up at the Blue Plains treatment plant in Washington, D.C., off Route 295, he said.

“A septic tank itself is a treatment, Milgrim said. “When sewage comes into the tank -- from a school or a shopping center -- the solids settle to the bottom of the tank. There is a liquid layer in the center, and the greases rise to the top.

“A drop of water, takes about 48 hours to be displaced out of the tank. It is always full.”

By law, every residential septic tank has to be pumped at least once every five years. Jerry Stewart, who has operated Stewart’s Septic Service in Herndon for more than 30 years, recommends every three years.

“The [septic] tank is a big trap to collect the sludge,” he said. “The average home uses 200 to 300 gallons every day, in a 1200 to 1500 gallon tank.

“The drain field absorbs the water, and filters it through the soil. If they don’t clean the tank more often, that prevents sludge from carrying out and clogs up the gravel. It can ruin the drain field.”

Homeowners can have problems when their pipes break and raw sewage leaks into the soil.

Then, they call service operators like Stewart, who tries to respond to septic emergencies.

“There are a lot of septics that are on pumps,” he said. “They last around seven years on the average. Different things can go wrong. Pipes can break and dump raw sewage on the ground and pollute the streams. Children and animals [would be exposed],” he said.

Curtailing the hours of the dump in Great Falls would make that more difficult, Stewart said.

“In the winter time, if we pump a tank out, and sewage backs up at your house, we have to dump it, because the truck will freeze over, especially in the winter.

“We would be forced to put it somewhere, or get a building to put it in overnight to keep it from freezing up.

SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS that perform the service of cleaning out septic tanks collect about $165 to $175 per visit. The closest place to offload the septage is in Great Falls; two others are in southern Fairfax County.

Recently, said Stewart, he paid more than $100,000 for a larger truck so his drivers could collect from more than one or two sites at a time.

His spiffy new tanker gets between four and five miles per gallon of gas, he said. Its driver must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and be paid about $20 an hour, plus time-and-a-half for every hour over 40 in the work week.

A county license to use the septic dump site costs $450 per year for the first truck a business owns, and $225 a year for every truck after that, said Milgrim. Stewart also advertises in the Yellow Pages.

“The average tank runs a homeowner $165 to have it cleaned out,” Stewart said. If the trucks were redirected to Lorton, “We would have to go up drastically on our prices to compensate” for the added cost of labor and fuel, Stewart said. “We would have to triple what we charge.”

With no public sewer in Great Falls, everyone depends on his service.

“The fire department is on a pump and we haul every day,” Stewart said. “[Their] system is old, and the field is not absorbing the water. That has to be taken care of. They don’t have city sewer to hook up to,” he said.

“BY LAW, ALL THESE TANKS all have to be pumped. If [the Great Falls site] is closed, it would drive up the price,” said Milgrim. “It would affect many, many, many people.

“There are lots of people on septic systems in Fairfax County. We need these sites, in my opinion.”

The other two public sites that accept septage for treatment are the Upper Oqqoquan Sewage Authority (UOSA) off Compton Road in Centreville, and the Norman Cole Treatment Plant, also known as the Lower Potomac Treatment Plant, on Richmond Highway in Lorton, operated by Fairfax County.

Sewage drained into the Great Falls site is pumped across the Potomac river to the Blue Plains Treatment Plant in southeast Washington, D.C., Milgrim said.

“We, as well as DPWES, monitor the site. We go by weekly, if not every one or two weeks, to make sure” that dumping is being done correctly.

“There are trucks licensed in Maryland that pay their licensing fee to offload here in Fairfax County,” Milgrim said.

“I am a small business guy. I stay busy.” said septic service owner Stewart. “We are going to have to use a dump somewhere.

“If they do stop that dump, it is going to cause a big burden on septic tank owners in Fairfax County.”

STEWART HAS ASKED county health officials to call a meeting of all the septic haulers in the county. “Call in everybody who is licensed,” he said. “Spank everybody’s hands, and if there is somebody causing problems, take their license away from them.”

That makes more sense than tripling costs by requiring haulers to drive to Lorton to empty their tanks, Stewart said.

Even then, there will still be an odor coming from the site in Great Falls, he said. “There has always been a problem with odor coming from there.

“Way back in the early and late 60s, you could drive through there at night, and you would get an odor from that plant,” Stewart said. He blames the grease traps in restaurants as the source.

“The odor from the grease traps is a lot worse, believe it or not, than a regular septic tank,” Stewart said. “There is a big problem with septic and sewerage in this area.

“Any time you handle sewage you are going to have your sewer gases and the odor from it,” Stewart said. “They are going to have the odor there, regardless. I don’t think they realize how much is coming through there.

He said it is the new residents who have raised concerns about the sewer tie-in in Great Falls.

“Nowadays, there are so many things you need to check out before you buy,” Stewart said. “What are you getting next to?

“Before I spent the kind of money they spent for those homes, I would have second thoughts about buying a home that close to a sewer [trunk line],” said Stewart. “It’s not just 30 or 40 people that live up on that hill. We are talking about the county as a whole” who depend on the service it provides, he said.

“If that dump is closed, it is going to cost them a whole lot of more money.”