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County Health Board tightens up experimental septic rules

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Proposals for houses and businesses on less-than-ideal soils are becoming more common in Porter County, often involving septic systems that haven’t yet been proven to work.

With that in mind, the Porter County Health Board has tightened up on the county’s rules for “experimental” septic systems, or those that the state has not yet accepted as proven technologies.

Under an addendum to the septic rules approved by the health board Tuesday, anyone seeking a permit for an experimental septic system must also set aside an area at least 75 percent as large as the planned septic system and must hold the county harmless in the event a permit is issued but the system ultimately fails.

Health Department Administrator Keith Letta said his department has been seeing more and more applications for experimental systems since so much of the best ground in Porter County has already been developed. The experimental systems are often proposed in marginal soils and on smaller sites than conventional septics.

“We are seeing a lot more of these as time goes on,” he said.

The Indiana State Board of Health reviews the septic applications but it’s up to the local health department to conduct the onsite inspection and issue the permits. Examples of experimental septics include those that involve constructed wetlands, drip irrigation, and pre-treatment of the waste.

Letta said the move-over area will help prevent a situation in which the septic system fails and there is no place else on the lot for another septic.

The property owner will be legally bound not to build on the move-over area, which will be protected by an easement.

Health board member Elizabeth Forbes questioned how long the “experimental” status should last for a well-functioning system. Letta noted that some septic systems -- like the mound system -- used to be labeled as experimental but no longer has that designation and has become common.

He said the county rules could stipulate that a system is no longer experimental once it loses that designation from the state. But health board attorney Dave Hollenbeck said the county rule should also allow an appeal process that gives the property owners the right to ask the health board to remove the restriction on building in the move-over area if the experimental system has been working.

Another concern raised by health board member Martin Moeller dealt with what restrictions, if any, the health board could impose on the use of the move-over area. Hollenbeck said the health board cannot ban property owners from storing heavy equipment or driving over the site. However, he also said the health board can strongly discourage any use that would compact the soils.

Letta said that if an experimental system fails, soil borings would be required before a new septic could be installed. So, he said, it is definitely in the owner’s best interest not to do anything that would change the soil’s characteristics.

Portage Clinic

In another matter, Letta updated the health board on the recent action by the Porter County Council, which urged the health department to reinstate its full-time Portage office.

Health board members were in unanimous agreement that they, too, want to see the part-time Portage office restored to the full component it was before the budget cuts prompted by the Bethlehem Steel bankruptcy in 2001. “People of Portage deserve it. The need is there,” said board member Dr. Alfred Kobak.

Letta said he’s putting together a plan that will include at least one full-time nurse and secretary to be included in the department’s 2007 budget proposal.

Letta noted that it took the health department about 10 years to get the funding needed to open the Portage office, but that it remained open for only about four years before the budget crisis. He said he’s “absolutely thrilled” that the council so strongly supports the Portage office, noting that the clinic was booked solid when it was open full-time.

The talk of the Bethlehem Steel bankruptcy prompted Kobak to reminisce how the county hospital Porter donated $100,000 that kept the health department’s off-site clinics afloat during the financial crisis. Kobak said he felt that the hospital never got the credit that it deserved. Health Officer Dr. Gary Babcoke agreed, saying that when he informed other county health officers in Indiana of the donation, they were “astounded” by the support shown.

Avian Flu

Health board members discussed the planning efforts underway among health and emergency responders in anticipation of an Avian flu outbreak.

Babcoke said the biggest problem facing emergency responders is inadequate communication systems. He noted the failures in communication among federal and state authorities in the Hurricane Katrina response.

Hollenbeck said if the flu outbreak is of the magnitude projected, local health departments won’t be able to rely on the federal government for help and will be overwhelmed. Emergency management plans now rely heavily on partnerships, he said, giving the example of Porter County loaning equipment to Lake County, and vice versa. But depending on the magnitude of the flu, he said, counties won’t be able to loan out their equipment, like ventilators, since they will likely face shortages in their own equipment needs.

A planning exercise on the Avian flu is scheduled for responders May 18 at the Porter County Expo Center.


Posted 4/6/2006