Friday, April 15, 2011

The Dark, Lurking Force beneath the Valley's green lawns, a Civic Soapbox essay by Bruce Dorries

I learned a lot about septic tanks during a recent chat with Gary Flory, Department of Environmental Quality, supervisor for 14 Virginia counties, including our area.

Real pro. Nice fella. Poor guy….

I peppered him with questions. You see, my family had just paid two hundred and fifty dollars to have ours cleaned. It had been about six years since the last servicing. My wallet still felt the pain.

It had seemed steep to me, especially after the suction pros joked, "Looked pretty good down there. And no noxious fumes. You must be living right, bud!"

Did this mean the tank could go longer between bills?” The previous owner had never had the tank serviced. Some neighbors operate on the “No smell, no foul, no fee,” septic maintenance program.

So, had I flushed two fifty down the drain? No, no, my new friend, the DEQ guru, told me. You invested two fifty.

And to convince me of the value of my investment, the guru told me
-- horror stories of homeowners finding themselves ankle deep in “failed systems” that took weeks to repair.

-- dark tales of replacement systems that must meet new environmental standards, sometimes costing four times as much as twenty thousand dollars.
-- blood curdling accounts of contaminated well water both near the tank and on neighboring property.
And, most shocking of all for greens such as myself –the cumulatively destructive impact of septic tank waste being flushed downstream is incalculable. Septic system failure contributes significantly to the fact that 62 percent of this region’s rivers and streams are more contaminated than water quality standards allow.
Not to mention augmenting the catastrophe that is the Chesapeake Bay.

My family lives on the Middle River in Augusta County. From a distance, the water around us looks pristine. Up close, you see slime covering the bottom. Don’t eat the fish. Don’t go swimming. It will take decades to clean. That’s a damn pity.

Many farmers in these parts have made a good faith start to improve practices that will clean our waters and save the bay. But we homeowners need to do a better job of taking care of our business, too. We can reduce storm water run off, use fertilizers sparingly, and get septic tanks emptied every five years.

The truth is that a dark force lurks beneath backyards throughout the Valley. Treated well, it is benign, even beneficial. If left unattended, these unassuming, often forgotten cement giants can foul our waterways and take massive bite out of a homeowners' bank accounts. Soil and water conservation districts have funds to help offset costs of pumping out the grit in tanks that clogs septic lines. County government can help homeowners make that connection with such funds.

Next week is Earth Week. Here’s hoping we all take it as a reminder to unearth the hatch, clean the tanks, and then reseed the soil. Let’s all join together in keeping the Valley’s backyards as green underneath as they are on the surface.

-- Bruce Dorries is a member of Friends of the Middle River and teaches at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton.


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