Distributed Wastewater Service & Responsibility by Rick Esselment

I started my career as a Public Health Inspector and Building Official in Brantford Ontario inspecting housing units for Migrant Farm Workers. I moved to more traditional Public Health and Septic Inspection work in Haldimand-Norfolk shortly after.

Working in a municipal government inspection and enforcement job very quickly taught me a valuable lesson about the relationships between authority, knowledge and service. Basically I saw it playing out like this, because we had authority, we didn’t seek knowledge and didn’t provide much service. I witnessed far too often inspectors that saw themselves as the “owners” of our regulations, with the property owners, trades people and service providers as problems to be managed in the most convenient method possible for the regulator. Still ambitious and idealistic about the need to provide value for money to the public, I decided to quit and start an Environmental Health Inspection company with my father in 2005.

The business concept was simple: helping property owners manage their septic systems to provide safe and reliable treatment of the wastewater to be recycled back into the environment on their property. “Onsite wastewater treatment” to me is really about enabling the property owner to be responsible for the wastewater produced on their property to be treated and recycled on that property. Standard septic systems are very simple, reliable and robust wastewater treatment. The tank separates out solids and partially digests them; the liquid leaves the tank and enters the soil where natural bacterial activity processes the water to be recycled back into the watershed. Septic systems that are designed, constructed, operated and maintained properly, can function and perform for 30-40 years. It is when we consider the operation and maintenance requirements, that the majority of property owners may need some guidance and support.

Simple right? Well it should be, but it gets complicated when the regulatory structure is considered. Onsite septic systems in Ontario for residential and small commercial properties are regulated under the Ontario Building Code. The primary element is a permit issued when a system is designed and installed. After the permit is issued, the system is then fully the responsibility of the property owner to use and maintain in compliance with the building code and good operations principles. This is where it gets sticky. Unlike other building systems on your property such as your house or garage, barn or swimming pool, your septic system has the potential to contaminate ground water when it malfunctions. Ground water is available to the property owner, but contamination from one property can spread to other properties that use the same ground water aquifer source. Ground water is more of a community resource to be protected with good wastewater management activity. Complimentary to wastewater management is the need to properly maintain ground water wells with best practices and routine maintenance.

A challenge we have in rural Ontario is that because septic systems and wells are considered to be the full responsibility of the property owner, there is almost no funding available in Federal, Provincial or Municipal budgets to assist property owners with the management of these assets through their functional life span. In other words, your system is your problem and your cost. Based on this present funding reality, and the nature of septic systems to continue to discharge wastewater into the environment for a substantial period of time after the soil has stopped treating the water properly, septic systems are neglected and then vilified as polluting the local aquifers. Since traditionally any Federal and Provincial funding programs have been set up to fund big municipal infrastructure projects for water and sewer work, a lot of small communities get sold on the idea that their aging septic systems need to be replaced with very large, very expensive sewer collection and treatment plants to solve the “environmental impacts” of septic systems. This is even framed as a benefit to the community by well-meaning people wanting to leave a legacy of progressive development for their little towns. They work hard to organize support for sewer and water projects which would see their communities labelled as having ground water contamination to justify the funding from government programs. Compounding the problem, is that any discussions about a future potential sewer in a small rural town usually reduces proactive septic system maintenance, repairs or replacements to avoid spending money on a septic system that may be replaced with a sewer in the near or mid-term future. As you can imagine, this actually results in poorer treatment of wastewater by aging septic systems and becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of environmental damage to further vilify septic systems in general.

In my view of rural property ownership and responsibility for septic systems, the property owners just need simple advice on maintenance, repairs and upgrades that will give them the knowledge and information necessary to manage their system. We don’t need expensive “re-inspection” programs run by the local building department, health unit or conservation authority. We just need people to be aware of their system, have an operation and maintenance plan, and keep their records of system maintenance for submission upon request to the Regulatory Authority. I understand the role of the Regulator, and respect that we need to ensure people are taking care of their systems to prevent ground water or environmental contamination caused by exhausted or broken septic systems. I just think that we spend too much time and money asking the government to run a program to inspect our systems, or asking the government to fund a big construction project.

Everyone that owns a property serviced by a septic system should just have a simple operation and maintenance plan. This will require knowledge of the systems components and the present condition of them to ensure proper function and proactive management. This can all be done by the property owner, and when necessary, inspection, installation and service companies could be brought in to support with any service needs, locating components, or to give an opinion on the best way to manage the system long term. If we take control of our septic system management, we can avoid costly government programs to do it for us, or worse, discussion about connecting our properties to collection sewers where we will lose control over the costs of our wastewater treatment. Remember it is always less expensive to deal with our own wastewater than to pay someone else to deal with it for us.

Onsite wastewater treatment is about taking responsibility for environmental stewardship at the property owner level. The systems are very cost effective and reliable, lasting a quarter to almost half a century in some cases. Septic systems can be seen as valuable rural assets if we just ensure they are taken care of and respected for the job they do. It may sound strange, but you should be proud of the septic system serving your property, because it keeps you in control of your costs and your responsibility.

Rick Esselment has a B.Sc from the University of Guelph, a BASc from Ryerson University and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Occupational Health from McMaster University. He is a certified public health inspector, registered onsite sewage inspector and proudly operates a small family Wastewater Services business with his father, mother, brother and dedicated staff team serving all of Ontario and Nova Scotia. He enjoys his rural property in Brant County and has two children.