MPCA SSTS Bulletin

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SSTS Bulletin

October 2013

Septic systems in compliance up 14 percent since 2008; threats to groundwater down 9 percent

Over a period of five years, the estimated percentage of SSTS in Minnesota that comply with standards improved from an estimated 65 percent of all systems to 79 percent. The estimated percentage of systems that fail to protect groundwater has dropped from 25 percent to 16 percent of systems. The improving compliance picture is revealed in the MPCA 2012 SSTS Annual Report.

Compliance information local SSTS program administrators report to the MPCA includes:

  • Total number of SSTS in their jurisdiction
  • Number of SSTS estimated to be in compliance
  • Number of SSTS estimated to be an Imminent Threat to Public Health and Safety (ITHPS)
  • Number of SSTS estimated to be failing to protect groundwater

Numerous local governmental units (LGUs) did not provide any information or simply reported it as an unknown value in their annual report. Other LGUs likely have some reasonably good estimates of SSTS compliance, based upon their tracking of submitted compliance inspections through various triggers that require an SSTS inspection and then calculating the compliance rate.

Figures 18, 19 and 20 in the report provide yearly estimates of SSTS compliance status for a period of six years from 2007 to 2012. 

Compliant systems

The number of estimated compliant systems has increased over the past seven years, from 334,500 systems in 2007 to 430,500 systems in 2012; an increase of 96,000 systems. During this time, LGUs reported that over 53,200 new and replacement system were installed. The estimated percentage of compliant SSTS increased from 65 percent in 2008 to 79 percent in 2012.


Systems failing to protect groundwater

The estimated number of systems that would not meet the vertical separation (systems failing to protect groundwater) decreased over the past seven years, from 117,000 systems in 2008 to 85,000 systems in 2012; a decrease of 32,000 systems (Figure 19). The estimated percentage of systems not meeting the vertical separation distance was reported as 25 percent in 2008, decreasing to 16 percent in 2012.


Imminent threats to public health and safety (ITPHS)

The estimated number of systems that would be considered ITPHS (i.e. backs up in house, surfacing systems, ‘straight pipes’ and cesspools; some LGU’s define seepage pits/drywells as an ITPHS) have decreased over the past seven years, from an estimated 56,000 systems in 2008 to 28,500 systems in 2012; a decrease of 27,500 systems (Figure 20). The estimated percentage of ITPHS systems was reported as 11 percent ITPHS in 2007, decreasing to 5 percent by 2012.


Got the write stuff? Help draft a new inspection form for advanced systems

The MPCA and SSTS Advisory Committee are looking for volunteers to be part of a committee to modify or create a new compliance inspection form for advanced system compliance inspections.

The new form would be used for systems of 2500 gallons per day or larger and Type IV systems. The volunteer group would discuss the proposed form through email and phone conference calls, so travel would not be required. Interested? Respond by Oct. 15, 2013, to Mark Wespetal at 651-757-2817 or by email.

Butts go in trash, not the can

EPA: Paying attention can prevent paying for SSTS repairs

During the first-ever SepticSmart Week in September, the EPA encouraged homeowners to take action to ensure their septic systems are functioning properly. Nearly one quarter of all American households—more than 26 million homes—depend on septic systems to treat their wastewater.

“By taking a few small, simple steps to care for their home’s septic system, homeowners can help protect the health of their community and their local waterways, while preventing potentially costly repairs to their septic system that can occur if the system is not properly maintained,” said EPA acting Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner.

Homeowners can do their part by following these SepticSmart tips:

  • Have their system inspected every three years by a licensed contractor and have their tank pumped when necessary, generally every three to five years.
  • Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain, which can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
  • Ask guests to only to put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. Coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts and cat litter should go in the trash, not the can. Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.
  • Be water efficient and spread out water use.  Too much water at once can overload a system if it hasn’t been pumped recently.

Low-income and rural communities, especially in the South, are particularly impacted by lack of access to adequate wastewater treatment, creating an environmental justice concern. According to the 2009 U.S. Census American Housing Survey, approximately 46 percent of the septic systems in the United States were in the South, where rural poverty is concentrated among communities of color and where more than one in five people in rural areas were living below the poverty line.

Straight River straight pipe is no more, thanks to Minnesota Wastewater Initiative project


Pollution from old, non-compliant  or straight-pipe septic systems is a significant problem in the Cannon River watershed and throughout Southeast Minnesota. Several small communities in the region still discharge untreated sewage directly into a waterway.

Bixby used to be one of them. This small community of 26 homes and one business is located southeast of Owatonna on Highway 218 near the headwaters of the Straight River. The majority of homes in the community were connected to a straight pipe that sent untreated sewage into the Straight River. Construction on Bixby’s new community sewer system, which consists of septic tanks on each of the 27  properties and then a collection system to take the sewage to a large series of drainfields and mounds for treatment, was completed in the fall of 2012. The straight pipe to the Straight River has been abandoned.

The Bixby success story is one of several being written through the efforts of the Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative project, a partnership between the Cannon River Watershed Partnership (CRWP), Southeast Minnesota Water Resources Board, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

CRWP has been working with small communities for over ten years. In that time, 15 small communities have upgraded their sewage treatment systems, eliminating 191,250 gallons of untreated sewage per day (69.8 million gallons per year) from entering the lakes, streams, and rivers of Southeast Minnesota. Check out their stories.