As the Brunswick-Glynn County’s Joint Water and Sewage Commission prepares to expand the public sewer system, some are investigating environmental damage caused by septic tanks.
Over the past few months, the utility has been researching its options for expanding the public water and sewer system and has decided to locate a “niche” in the northern Arco neighborhood, the Ellis Point area north of Ga. 303 and west of US 341 fill and some residential parks along Old Jesup Road north of Community Road.
Priority one is the Arco area, which has more than 1,600 new customers in the residential, commercial and industrial categories, said Deputy Director LaDonnah Roberts.
According to utilities, septic tank failures are not uncommon in Arco. The Glynn County Health Department issued 88 septic tank repair permits and responded to 35 sewage complaints in the last year alone.
Major changes being driven by local residents and landowners in the area are likely not due to the spread of poverty, usefulness and representatives of the city of Brunswick. It is likely that grants and discounts will be required to get residents down the drains once they become available.
Errors can take many forms and not all are immediately apparent on the surface. Some types of failure, as common as collapse, are more fundamental to the treatment process itself.
That’s the subject of a study by the University of Georgia Marine Extension and the Georgia Sea Grant, led by UGA PhD student Courtney Melissa Balling.
“You have this big tank that everything goes in. I wish there was a better way to talk about it, but the solids settle to the bottom of the tank and the liquid settles to the top, ”Balling said. “The liquid flows from above into a so-called drainage field.”
Wastewater can flow into the ground and seep down until it hits the groundwater.
“The dirt itself acts like a natural filter, but any small microbes in the soil eat up the waste,” Balling said.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Department, a properly designed septic tank – a plateau with plenty of soil to filter through and not cluttered – can be a perfect wastewater treatment solution. Unfortunately, many, especially in lower and coastal regions, are not.
“When all the boxes are checked, septic tanks are fantastic,” said Balling.
“The most serious problems documented are the contamination of surface water and groundwater with disease-causing pathogens and nitrates,” according to the EPA website.
“Other problems include excessive nitrogen discharges into sensitive coastal waters and inland phosphorus pollution of surface waters, which increases algae growth and lowers dissolved oxygen levels. In some coastal regions, the contamination of important mussel beds and bathing beaches by pathogens is a problem. “
The effects on human health are obviously worrying, Balling said.
“But it can also lead to excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which can cause algal blooms and chemical changes in the swamp,” she said. “If you put a lot of excess nutrients in a body of water, you can get these algal blooms because you have all of these foods to eat. If you’ve ever seen a lake with green foam this is why. “
In the ocean and in salt water bodies, this can lead to a “red tide”, a bloom of salt water algae that produces toxins. As soon as the food runs out, the algae die and decompose. This uses up oxygen, which can kill masses of fish and cause the cycle to continue.
“Sometimes (the excess nutrients) can come from rainwater runoff and animal waste, but one of the contributors is septic tank failure in coastal communities with widespread use of tanks,” Balling said.
“Given the location of the septic tanks in Braunschweig and the number of septic tanks in the vicinity of bodies of water, I would be surprised if we didn’t see any effects on the water quality.”
The need for sufficient soil between the septic tank and the groundwater is essential.
“When (sewage) meets groundwater, it should be clean in every way,” Balling said. “What has happened in many coastal areas is the rise in sea levels, which is also pushing the groundwater upwards.”
Instead of having the ideal minimum of three to four feet, some areas of the coastal region may have one foot or less.
“We’re already seeing some of it. We saw a lot more of what people call disruptive flooding, ”Balling said. “We can already see that the water level is slowly rising. That means there are more and more cases where clarifying liquid flowing through the drainage field is not treated.”
In hopes of measuring the potential damage, Balling and other staff from the University of Georgia Marine Extension and the Georgia Sea Grant are working to identify the number of septic tanks in the southern Georgia area and collect data on the water table as sea level impact .
“Later in the year we will measure the water level and how it correlates with … tides and if you see any bacterial effects from it,” Balling said.
This, in turn, will provide an indication of how widespread or limited the contamination from septic tanks is. Despite the data, Balling is not sure whether a perfect solution will turn out. Septic tanks are not inherently faulty and in many cases are just as functional as a well-designed wastewater treatment system.
What does not help is that sewage treatment plants are usually built in lower-lying areas near bodies of water where treated wastewater is discharged.
“We’ll likely see a patchwork of functional solutions along the coast,” Balling said. “There is no perfect answer other than withdrawing from the coast.”
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