Bill would change septic system enforcement

INDIANAPOLIS — Republican state lawmakers are seeking to overhaul Indiana’s septic system laws and make it easier for new residential sewage disposal mechanisms to be installed or replaced.

But environmental advocates say at least one of the proposals advancing through the Statehouse could lead to more failed septic systems and increased pollution across Indiana.

House Bill 1647 would grant Hoosier property owners the ability to override local health department decisions about new septic system installations and existing systems that have failed as long as they have a paid consultant who agrees with them.

It also makes it easier for installers and engineers to get permits to provide sewage system services across multiple counties.

Critics say the bill breeds conflicts of interest and argue that decisions regarding septic systems should remain in the hands of public health professionals.

“Our local health departments have the objective of doing what’s best for the community,” said Indra Frank, environmental health and water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, while speaking Monday before a Senate environment committee. “Do we want to leave regulatory decisions in the hands of people who have a financial stake in that septic system?”

The House bill advanced 7-2 from the committee and is now under consideration in the Senate chamber.

Debate over that and other septic system bills comes amid increased scrutiny over a separate measure that originally detailed the storage of residential sewage but was amended last week to add controversial wetlands language.

Septic systems are designed to collect household wastewater from toilets, sinks, showers and other drain flows into an underground tank. Solid waste settles on the bottom of the tank, while the remaining liquid flows into an absorption field before seeping into the surrounding soil.

There are nearly 1 million such systems in Indiana, according to the Indiana Department of Health.

Many are found in rural areas of the state, but some also exist in urban areas, per a report by the Indiana Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. Indianapolis, for example, recorded 17,000 systems as of 2019.

But the state health department estimates that approximately 200,000 of those disposal systems are inadequate, have failed or are in the process of failing, putting environmental and public health at risk.

Health officials warn that every failing septic system can discharge more than 76,000 gallons of untreated wastewater annually into the state’s groundwaters and surface waters. Contaminated water can breed E. coli and harmful bacteria.

It’s up to locals to keep records on septic systems. There is no statewide tracking of all of the systems that exist or what condition they’re in.

There are not any state requirements for inspections of septic systems, and only a few individual counties have related ordinances.

Now, House Bill 1402, authored by Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, intends to transfer authority over residential onsite sewage systems from IDOH to a Technical Review Panel made up of various state officials, scientists, academics and industry professionals.

That panel would then be “in total control of Indiana’s septic code,” Pressel said, making it responsible for amending the existing state requirements and authorizing new sewage system technology.

Further, local septic ordinances would be void as of July 1, according to the latest draft of the bill. Any new ordinances adopted by a city or county will need to be approved by the TRP or the ordinance can’t be enforced.

“The goal is to have one statewide septic rule … we want one level playing field throughout the state,” Pressel said, noting his bill seeks to require local septic ordinances be adopted like building codes.

Homeowners are still responsible for the overall operation, maintenance and upkeep of the system, including repairs or replacement.

“This is safeguarding us from unreasonable manufacturing ordinances,” he said.

That could include local requirements limiting septic tanks to sizes for which necessary seals and pipes do not exist.

The bill advanced 9-0 from the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee and now heads to the Senate floor.

While Pressel’s bill would take on the system as a whole statewide, House Bill 1647, authored by Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, addresses septic system installers specifically.

Currently, Indiana’s local health departments are responsible for determining if a site is adequate for installing a residential septic system and ordering corrective measures if a system is failing. Even under Pressel’s bill, local departments would still be charged with enforcement.

Indiana’s local health departments issue more than 15,000 permits per year for new systems and about 6,000 permits for repairs, according to IDOH.

Morris’ bill would change that process, allowing property owners to overrule local health department decisions if a hired consultant declares the system operable.

“These local departments of health are taking it upon themselves to say, ‘You can’t build a home there because of the soils,’ but this professional over here is saying you can build a home there — and I’ve talked to the installer and I’ve talked to the designer and you can build a home,” Morris said. “Being told that you cannot build a home on this ground that you worked hard for … and then when you talk to these professionals and they say you can … that’s what we’re getting at here.”

Permits for new septic system installations would have to be issued within 30 days — far more expeditiously than in some counties, where such credentials can take months to get, Morris said.

Additionally, if a local health department determines that a residential septic system is in failure and orders corrective action, the owner or occupant of the property can hire an independent consultant for a second opinion. If the contractor deems the system not to be in failure, the local order must be withdrawn or the municipal health department can conduct an investigation within 60 days to make a new determination.

Morris’ bill also allows members of the Indiana Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association, which represents septic system installers, to provide services anywhere in Indiana as long as they’re registered to do so in at least one county.

Although the Hoosier Environmental Council was originally neutral on the bill, Frank said the group is “now concerned.”

The environmental council supported a provision in the introduced bill that would have required a septic system inspection to be completed before the transfer or sale of a property. That language was removed, however, along with another section that would have created a licensing system for septic system installers.

“I think this bill goes beyond just appealing their decision and actually puts those paid consultants in the position of superseding the local health department,” Frank said.

Adam Kallick, representing IOWPA, said the association supports and is “looking for licensure.”

Morris said the House “as a whole” isn’t ready for a state licensure requirement, though.

“There’s only one person that’s required to be licensed through the state of Indiana when you build your home, and that is a plumber,” Morris said. “We’re going to move toward that with the septic installation, but we’re not there yet.”

Morris added that “there’s nothing in state law” stopping a homebuyer from getting their own inspection of a septic system.

“If they want to know if this septic system is fully functioning, they can bear the cost of that,” he said, echoing similar pushback from the Indiana Association of Realtors that mandated septic inspections at the point of sale would complicate closings.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle covers the Indiana legislature and state government. For information, visit