Ohio EPA Helps Homeowners Fix Their Crappy Septic Tanks

Jul 17, 2018

Before Deborah Leonard finally replaced her septic tank, it was 100 years old and causing a flood of problems.

“It was leaking back into my pump house,” Leonard says. “And water standing, sewage standing, it was bad.”

Leonard lives off a gravel country road with her two dogs and two horses in Fayette County. She's been in the same house for 10 years.

“My grandmother bought it in 1951 and she lived here until she passed,” Leonard says.

An estimated 1 million Ohio homes get rid of waste with a septic tank and system, according to the Ohio Health Department. But many of those septic tanks have begun to fail.

The Ohio EPA started the state-administered Water Pollution Control Loan Fund to help low-income Ohioans fix those systems, which can be costly to maintain. The organization’s goal is to bring every septic system in the state up to code - which is important for more than just individual homes.

“As much as a third of home septic systems are failing to some degree,” says Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson Dina Pierce. “This allows untreated sewage to be discharged into groundwater or surface water.”

Many systems are failing due to age or poor maintenance. Pierce says the program helps stop the spread of harmful bacteria that impact government land and private homeowners alike.

“One stream flows into another and so on, so it actually affects the whole state,” Pierce says.

How The Program Works

That’s why the state EPA started a principal forgiveness loan program in 2016. The EPA gives money to counties, which then awards money to individuals who need help.

A state grant program helped Deborah Leonard obtain a new septic tank system for her house, which can cost thousands of dollars.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU

Once money transfers from counties to people, it acts as a grant. Who’s eligible varies by county, but the money is intended to help people who are low-income. People can get as little as 50 percent off or as much as 100 percent of the cost of the system replacement covered.

“Our financial assistance team publicizes the availability of the funds," Pierce says. "Then the county or city health departments and in some cases county commissioners apply for the loans."

Seventy of Ohio’s 88 counties received some sort of funding - including the health departments in Franklin, Marion and Pickaway counties. Nine Central Ohio counties and Columbus Public Health received up to $200,000 for the next loan application cycle.

After receiving state funding, counties encourage their residents to apply. Once recipients are chosen, the county agencies send sanitarians to detect the specific problem.

Fairfield County Health Department environmental director Kelly Spindler says the process takes a while, from identifying financial recipients to actually getting the septic systems repaired or installed.

“It’s a long process and a lot of steps we have to go through,” Spindler says.

Fairfield County helped nine families so far last year.

“Sometimes it takes well over a year when we have weather issues and things like that that we have to deal with,” Spindler says.

It can be hard for county agencies to disperse the EPA funds, because while the service is needed, Spindler says some people are scared to seek solutions for their defective septic systems for fear of being penalized.

“People are afraid to contact us because they know they may have a problem,” Spindler says.

Deborah Leonard's new septic system is computerized, which she says works well.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU

According to Spindler, a new system can be up to $20,000, although the average cost is closer to $5,000.

“We try to make a way so it won’t feel like they’ll get in trouble if they make a phone call,” Spindler says.

Lots Of Money Left  

Because of the long process, several counties have not yet chosen recipients for the 2018-2019 cycle and are still looking for people to apply. Almost 80 percent of Ohio counties received some sort of funding.

Cassie Jones, who lives in Washington Courthouse, says her septic system was replaced two years ago through the principal forgiveness loan program. She's relieved because it means the water around her is cleaner.

"A lot of people swim in the creek, fish in the creek," Jones says. "It goes all over to Paint Creek."

Even though it took two months for the Fayette County Soil and Conservation District to install Leonard’s new septic system, it was a worthwhile wait after years of problems. She smiles as she shuffles to the side of her house, pointing out the features of her new system.

“It’s similar to an irrigation system. There’s two tanks there. There’s a computer box there. And it’s all computerized. It’ll turn on at a certain time and run the system,” Leonard says. “It has an alarm system on it if something goes wrong, and a couple things went wron,  but it’s no big deal. Trial and error on things, they have to work. But works fine now!”