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When drainfields fail, it’s the county’s problem

by Tom Chillemi

Growth should be directed toward areas that have or will have central sewer, said Roger Hart, vice president of Royer-Malcolm Pirnie Consultants.

“Scattered growth” with failing drainfields can put a big strain on a county’s economy years after subdivisions are built, Hart said.

“I would advise you to try to direct your growth around areas that you see will support that type of development,” Hart told the Middlesex Planning Commission at its July 10 meeting.
Hart has been the wastewater consultant to Middlesex since 1994.

The impact of failing drainfields can cost millions of dollars, and the county can be left holding the bill if it becomes a health threat, he said.

“Good development is a blessing to the community,” said Hart. “Marginal development opens you up to future costs.”

Citizens will put pressure on the county to help with their sewage problems, said Hart. “In the majority of the counties I have worked with, the counties have come to the rescue of those failed systems.”

One result is restrictions on development, Hart said. Developers that want to build outside of the area designated for central sewer in Chesterfield County must pay “all infrastructure costs,” Hart said.

Since wastewater has to be pumped to a central point to be treated, the further the development is away from the treatment plant the more it will cost. Also, the plant must have the capacity to handle the extra wastewater, said Hart.

He explained that problems with drainfields might not show up for years.


All rights-of-way and easements need to be in place when subdivisions are designed so sewer service can be installed later, said Hart. Some counties require homes to have the wastewater lines run from the dwellings so they can be tied into a wastewater collection line later. However, “That’s expensive,” said Hart. “That’s infrastructure in the ground that you are not using.”

Designating areas for growth is the best policy, said Hart, who added allowing growth in distant areas is not prudent.

“That’s the bottom line,” said commission chairman John England.

Planning commission mem-ber Garrison Hart said the county should “want to do the best job and have the best system so that 5, 10 or 20 years from now we won’t have to pass a lot of the cost on to the rest of the county.”

Roger Hart agreed and added that the county is trying to focus growth in the areas of Saluda and Deltaville. “There is going to be a huge pent-up demand down there (in Deltaville),” he said.

In the early 1990s, Middlesex County determined it wanted to provide sewer service to the areas of Saluda and Deltaville, said R. Hart. “One of these days there is going to be a central wastewater system in Deltaville. The growth is going to demand it.

“These two areas, Saluda and Deltaville, are perfect for Middlesex County to direct its growth, and, if you want to, leave the rest of your county rural,” said R. Hart.

He said Deltaville also has need for central water.

The county zoning ordinance does not consider mass central drainfields as a central sewer system.

New Treatment Plant

A master plan for central water and sewer was done by Hart’s firm, which is currently designing a wastewater treatment plant for Saluda to be built a half mile east of Saluda.

The proposed Saluda plant will be expandable, said R. Hart. “You will be able to sustain and direct growth in that area. The county should be prepared when this system goes in; there is a lot of property in the area around Saluda and Cooks Corner.”

State DEQ discharge limits for phosphorus and nitrogen are being lowered and within three years will need to be nearly eliminated from the discharge. “It’s going to get even tougher in the future to put in central wastewater systems,” R. Hart said. “Alternative” ways of reusing effluent for irrigation will have to be considered.

“We’re looking at possible re-use of (treated) water here in Saluda, trying to re-use the grey water from the treatment plant for irrigation in the area of Saluda, so you would not have a discharge,” he said.

Middlesex has tried to direct growth towards hubs where central sewer will be provided, R. Hart said.

Homeowners Associations

Planning commission mem-ber Buck Boyd noted that many developers design subdivisions so homeowners associations (HOA) will be responsible for running treatment plants. Boyd asked how successful that has been.

R. Hart replied, “My experience is that it’s been really tough on the homeowners associations because the people of the homeowners associations are not fully aware what they are getting into.”

These are citizens who are not equipped to operate water and wastewater treatment plants, and financial problems can arise when association members can’t afford the fees, said R. Hart.

“A lot of times these associations are there in word only,” Hart cautioned the planners. “I would be concerned about the wording that you are going to look at for these associations.”


If soils support it, are drainfields as good as central sewer? asked commission member Gordon Jones.

“They have been shown to work in the short term, but in the long term I don’t think that is the most viable way,” said R. Hart. “What you have in your zoning ordinance as far as central sewerage is the best way to go.”

He said cooking grease will block up drainfields and even the most sophisticated sewer system.

R. Hart said many counties, such as Middlesex, require that an area be set aside for a new drainfield in case the primary drainfield fails.

posted 08.01.2008

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