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Sewage contamination of Michigan waters may spur litigation

Failing septic tanks may be partially to blame for an increase in contamination of Michigan rivers and lakes. According to the 2014 version of the impaired waters report put out by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 7,232 miles of rivers were contaminated with potentially harm-causing pathogens in 2012. This number is more than double the 3,359 miles identified in 2008.

The contamination is caused by pollution from animal and human waste that is draining into surface waters. One reason behind the pollution could be failing septic tanks. It is estimated that around 10 percent of Michigan's septic tanks are not working properly. When this happens, raw sewage goes into the rivers, lakes and underground aquifers, some of which supply wells used for drinking water.

Although studies have identified failing septic tanks as a problem, gaps in Michigan's septic tank regulations are making them harder to fix. The state does not have a uniform code for designing, installing or maintaining septic tanks, and the tanks do not have to be inspected after installation.

While several groups and Michigan counties have lobbied for an update to the regulations, all six proposals that made it to the legislature have been shot down in committee. One possible reason is the effect a statewide septic code would have on those in the real estate industry. If a statewide code was implemented, there are concerns that it would interfere with local governments' right to control land use or put real estate agents in the position of being "septic tank police."

In a legal case brought against a Sanilac County township in 2012, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that cities have to take measures to address sewage leakage that leads to pollution. If this does not happen, additional litigation by real estate professionals and their attorneys is possible. Such litigation would force the courts to intervene on the issue.

Source: mlive, "Michigan rivers polluted by human, animal waste more than double previous estimates" Jeff Alexander, Jan. 23, 2014

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