We have a two-year-old that is just becoming interested in the potty. Inevitable what comes next is reading "Everybody Poops" or some such children's book over and over and over and over. What her precious little brain is not yet grappling with, and what many never ponder, is what happens once you flush the toilet.

Not a real stimulating topic, and I don't really want to get into it here, except as background information so we are technically on the same page. When you flush the toilet, take a shower, run the washer, etc...the wastewater goes to either an a) public sewer where it is treated in a public sewage treatment system, b) a community-collection system where it is treated along with wastewater from other sources, or as is very common in rural areas, c) your own sewage treatment system.

Let's focus on this last alternative, your own system. In Minnesota, these systems are regulated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which has written rules that are passed down to counties, which in turn may be passed down to cities and townships (sorry, not going to get into that part, TS). These rules were strengthened in the 1990's because we had a real problem with sewage treatment systems. Many were failing, especially around lakes, and it was causing a huge problem.

Note, the new rules and research that has been done on these systems have dramatically improved the environment. We've cleaned up a lot of polluting systems and saved a lot of lakes, which is an important thing here in Minnesota. My question in this blog is not: have we done a good thing? The answer is "yes, of course". My question is: is this the best way to do it?

In terms of bureaucracy, the MPCA has one of the largest and most unruly. These are good people, mind you, but they function in an incredible sea of red tape, endless process and indecision. Out of this has come some of the most cumbersome regulation every to hit small-towns in Minnesota.

Consider: If a property owner wishes to install a new sewage treatment system, here is the process. (Note, I am going to capitalize the people official involved with some type of MPCA licensing, certification or training in this process and label them so you can follow along).

Step 1: Property owner hires a DESIGNER (1) to come to the property, do an evaluation and design a system for the property. The DESIGNER has a license to do the design.

Step 2: Design in hand, the property owner submits this design to the city/town OFFICIAL (2) in charge of receiving them. This OFFICIAL is a clerk-type person with special training from MPCA.

Step 3: The OFFICIAL forwards the design to a REVIEWER (3) who reviews the design. The REVIEWER also has MPCA licensing as a designer. It is not clear exactly what is supposed to happen when the REVIEWER and the DESIGNER do not agree on the design (and this happens frequently), but it typically does not matter as you will see.

Step 4: Upon acceptance by the REVIEWER, the OFFICIAL will issue a permit for installation.

Step 5: The city/town will at this point designate an INSPECTOR (4) whose job it is to be present during the installation to ensure it is done properly. The INSPECTOR has a license from MPCA.

Step 6: The INSPECTOR will contact the property owner, who will indicate whom they have chosen to be the INSTALLER (5). The INSTALLER also has a license from the MPCA. The INSPECTOR and the INSTALLER will coordinate on the inspection date and time.

Step 7: The INSTALLER will install the system and the INSPECTOR will inspect that installation. This is where it gets interesting. If, in the opinion of the INSTALLER or the INSPECTOR, the design is flawed for some reason, the INSTALLER and the INSPECTOR may alter the original design. (This frequently is legitimate as the dirt dug up is sometimes different than what was anticipated from a couple test holes, but often the design is altered just because the installer got a good deal on a certain size tank and wants to use that instead of the one that was designed). In this case, the INSPECTOR is supposed to document the changes in a final record drawing.

Step 8: The INSPECTOR submits paperwork to the OFFICIAL, who will us it to file year-end reports with the MPCA. One of the reports - an accounting of the number of tanks installed - is used to check up on the INSTALLERS, which are required to pay a fee per tank.

Step 9: The property owner may now use the system and is required to have pumped by a PUMPER (6) periodically. The pumper has also been through the deal with MPCA.

Okay. So here we have six different individuals/entities involved in this process.

  1. Designer
  2. Official
  3. Reviewer
  4. Inspector
  5. Installer
  6. Pumper

And we also have numerous reports being filed:

  1. Designer submission to Official
  2. Reviewer submission to Official
  3. Inspector submission to Official
  4. Official submission to MPCA
  5. Installer submission to MPCA
  6. Pumper reports retained with each pumping

Before we get on to the larger point, one simple question: If the sewage treatment system that is installed does not work, who is responsible?

The Designer has seemingly been absolved by the reviewer. The reviewer has been absolved by the inspector. The inspector can point to the installer and visa-versa if something goes wrong, or back to the designer and/or reviewer. With so many people in the chain, the reality is that nobody is responsible. Nobody that is except the property owner.

So let's consider this alternative approach:

Step 1: Property owner notifies the city/town that they are installing a sewage treatment system. A permit is issued and the city/town sends out an INSPECTOR (1) to document what is being buried below the ground.

Step 2: Annually, the city/town sends out the INSPECTOR to inspect the system and ensure it is working properly. If it is not, property owner is given a short interval to fix it, after which the house is condemned and boarded up until the system is fixed.

The reaction of the bureaucracy (that is comfortable with process over results) is predictably going to be: But who ensures that everything is done right? The answer: While the system today does a better job than the hands-off approach of decades ago, there is nobody ensuring that things are done right today. Nobody is responsible and nobody is held accountable, except the property owner. The alternative approach simply skips the bureaucracy and cuts to the chase.

And worse, today's system mandates a "real" inspection only when a property owner goes through the permitting process or the property ownership changes. In the current bureaucracy, a failing system could exist for decades if the owner of the property never asked for another permit and the property was never sold.

So instead of creating a system where the property owner is held directly accountable with a defined standard (inspection) at a regular interval (annually), MPCA has created this huge bureaucracy of training, certification, inspections and permitting where nobody is really accountable, the costs are high and the actual performance of the systems is rarely measured.

Officials will also argue that this is all being done for the end benefit of the property owner, who is uninformed about sewage treatment systems and thus not prepared to actively manage it. In reality, not only is the property owner the only accountable person in the current system of regulation (thus not really protected), the current system shields them from becoming responsible for their system. Someone else takes care of all of the technical decisions during the process and, for the property owner, out of sight - out of mind. With annual inspections where they would be responsible to pay to replace a failing system, you can bet a property owner would take a more active role in managing the system (and to back up even further, maybe be more discriminating on where they choose to build in the first place).

So ask yourself: What is the goal? It should be to ensure that sewage treatment systems perform and properly treat wastes before they negatively impact the environment. Does our current system do that? It usually does, but at huge cost in money and bureaucracy. Could it be done more effectively and at a fraction of that cost, with minimal red tape? Without question.

If legislators are looking for a place to reduce costs and streamline government, the MPCA's on-site sewage treatment program would be a great place to start.