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Septic System Raises Concerns

Great Falls Citizens Association brings in waste water management experts.

Septic systems have an annoying habit of sneaking up on their owners when least expected. Everything appears to be operating smoothly, until one day the homeowner gets the unwelcome surprise of discovering that sludge and filth have overtaken his or her yard.

"It’s happening right now in Great Falls — it’s kind of a quiet menace," said developer and Great Falls resident Wayne Foley. "A lot of times there’s not much warning, maybe a little discoloration in the grass, a little bit of a bad smell that comes and goes, but then suddenly you’ve got a crisis."

In fact, Craig Benson of Waste Water Management, Inc., says many homeowners have no idea that they are even using a septic system until a problem arises.

"They are underground, so out of site and out of mind," said Benson, speaking at the Nov. 13 Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) general meeting on septic system maintenance.

Benson, along with Ed Clerico of Alliance Environmental, and John Milgrim of the Fairfax County Health Department, discussed the ins and outs of septic system maintenance at last week’s Great Falls Citizens Association meeting, in an effort to brainstorm possible septic system maintenance and monitoring procedures for Fairfax County. The county currently has no standard procedures in place, except to require property owners to have their septic systems pumped out every five years. However, even that requirement is not routinely monitored.

According to Benson, 162 permits for new septic systems were filed in Fairfax County last year alone, and there are 30,000 on-site septic systems already in place in the county.

"So these are continuing to go on and there are a huge number of these systems still going in," said Benson "And Advanced Treatment Systems is what we’re seeing a lot more of."

Given the large number of septic systems currently in place, the Fairfax County Health Department is seeking to implement regular maintenance policies in order to prevent the potential health problems that can arise from poorly managed septic systems.

"Last year we had 636 repairs done in the county — it’s usually pumps, but it could be just about anything," said Benson.

In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came up with a five-tiered program of septic system maintenance that ranges from a basic Level One which simply entails owner awareness, to the more comprehensive Level Five, which employs a "Responsible Management Entity," or RME.

According to Clerico, rural areas with low density are better suited to Level One maintenance policies.

"As you go up to areas where there is more environmental sensitivity, it’s better to use higher levels of maintenance," said Clerico.

IN VIRGINIA, August County already has septic system maintenance requirements in place, while Loudoun County has been in the process of trying to implement a standard system as well. The vast majority of Great Falls relies on septic systems and not sewer, and the residents at the Nov. 13 Great Falls Citizens Association meeting expressed a strong desire to better educate the local community on the proper maintenance of their septic systems — especially since septic system failures can pose major health hazards for both homeowners and their neighbors.

"There are concerns about pharmaceutical products getting into the ground, or if your pet dog goes running across someone’s failed septic field, gets their feet contaminated and then you get too cuddly with your dog," said Benson.

According to Milgrim, failed septic systems do not currently pose a huge problem in Fairfax County. However, given that septic systems do have a definite shelf life, the county anticipates that problems will arise as time goes on.

"It depends how you define failure — I look at it as catastrophic — and less than two percent of properties are failing right now, but age is going to be a factor," said Milgrim.

Foley suggested that Fairfax County offer an online "self-test" on its Web site to allow property owners to assess whether or not their septic field might be in need of maintenance, and local resident Marta Roy proposed that property owners have a complete check done on their system at each 5-year pumping. Clerico said both were good ideas.

"But you first have to decide what level of service is appropriate for Fairfax County, and then decide what is the best way to implement it," he said.