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St. Tammany weighs plan to limit sewage outflows

Jun 23, 2023Jun 23, 2023

Wastewater is piped into a ditch in front of a house in Covington on July 21 2022.

Across St. Tammany Parish, an estimated 42,000 homes and businesses rely on some form of on-site sewage treatment system that isn’t hooked up to municipal sewer lines.

According to estimates from the nonprofit environmental group the Pontchartrain Conservancy, over half of these systems are likely malfunctioning — which means that what homeowners are flushing down their toilets is winding up in the waters that residents swim in. Ultimately, it’s flowing into Lake Pontchartrain.

“The end goal here is clean water,” said Kristi Trail, the executive director of the Pontchartrain Conservancy.

St. Tammany Parish Council member Rykert Toledano introduced an ordinance on Thursday that would require every structure with its own septic system to be inspected every three years to ensure those systems are functioning properly.

The ordinance could come back to the council for adoption in October.

“This is the most important piece of environmental legislation that this council can pass in the years to come,” Toledano said. “If we don’t do it, we are going to continue to do a disservice to ourselves, to our children, to our environment, and to what’s good for St. Tammany Parish.”

The inspections do come with a price tag: They would cost $100 each, a cost that Toledano noted would come out to about $33 per year.

Toledano compared the cost to that of making sure the brakes on his car are regularly inspected. “I get brake tags to make sure that my car is safe for my neighbors and to myself,” he said. “We should be willing to spend $33 a year to make sure that our children are playing in a safe environment.”

St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper was cautious with his support for the plan. “While I believe this initiative is very important, we must ensure that our citizens are fully aware of this program and its intentions before it’s implemented,” he said.

Cooper's administration convened a wastewater task force last year to study the parish’s sewage problem, which contributed to the development of Toledano’s ordinance.

As the parish’s population has ballooned over the years, alongside the rapid development of new subdivisions, individual septic systems have proliferated throughout St. Tammany Parish.

Data compiled by the St. Tammany Parish Mosquito Abatement District indicates that the installation of these systems peaked in the years after Hurricane Katrina, when new residents were moving in large numbers to the north shore. In 2007 alone, more than 18,000 new on-site septic systems were installed in the parish, according to a report produced for the mosquito district.

Septic systems in St. Tammany are generally what’s called “aerated treatment units.” They consist of a sewage tank with an electric-powered device that filters air into it. The air, pumped in, treats sewage before it's discharged into drainage ditches. Traditional septic tanks, which filter out into the ground beneath the tank, don’t work in many parts of the north shore because the soil is a dense clay.

And most structures — whether they’re businesses or homes — in the unincorporated parts of St. Tammany rely on these systems.

While newer subdivisions were required by law to install their own local sewer treatment systems, a handful of subdivisions that were built before that law was passed still use aerated treatment units in densely populated areas.

For Kevin Caillouet, the director of the mosquito abatement district, sewage-laden drainage ditches create a particular problem: They provide an ideal breeding ground for the southern house mosquito, which transmits West Nile virus.

“We have to spray 600 miles of drainage ditches every week,” Caillouet said.

Sydney Johnson, a field biologist with St. Tammany Parish Mosquito Abatement, sprays a larvicide oil that helps smoother mosquito larvae in a ditch filled with treated wastewater in Covington on July 21 2022.

Even though there would be a cost to repairing old septic systems, he noted there’s already a cost borne by the parish associated with treating all these ditches. Plus, there’s the potential medical costs that the parish would have to bear if there were an outbreak of West Nile, which Caillouet’s staff has detected in local mosquitoes.

For some members of the council, problems with septic systems are personal.

“I had to pay over $5,000 to repair my system about a year ago,” Council chair Jake Airey said. He supports taking action to address the parish’s sewage problem but wants more information about how this specific ordinance would be implemented before he commits to voting for it.

He noted that as things currently stand, houses are only inspected when they’re sold — and that could be once every 30 years or more. Plus, there are also just four employees in the parish whose job it is to actually conduct these inspections, the parish government said. They likely could not inspect 42,000 buildings themselves.

And once an on-site sewage system fails an inspection, the cost of repair would fall on the resident.

“We want the systems to be up to par,” Airey added. “But we also want to be sure that we’re not essentially condemning property without fixing the problem.”

Email Alex Lubben at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter, @AlexLubben.