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