ALEXANDRIA — In September 2022, raw sewage was found flowing into Pipe Creek outside the city limits.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management fined Madison County $1,700, and the county was required to submit a compliance plan, which included developing a water and wastewater infrastructure needs assessment.

The sewage likely originated in a nearby residential neighborhood without a homeowners association which could have addressed the issue. Since the site is located in an unincorporated area, responsibility for addressing the matter fell to the county.

Similar incidents could increase in frequency after the Indiana Legislature passed House Enrolled Act 1402 during its regular session earlier this year. Signed into law in May by Gov. Eric Holcomb, the new law, environmental advocates say, essentially transfers authority over onsite residential sewage systems from local health departments to homeowners, who they contend could rely on consultants with financial interests in seeing septic systems installed.

“This bill…has the potential to increase the number of failing septic systems in Indiana,” said Dr. Indra Frank, environmental health and water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Unfortunately, a failing septic system can mean untreated or inadequately treated sewage winding up loose or flowing into some of our streams and waterways.”

Frank noted that IDEM issued a report late last year that estimated more than 7,000 stream miles in the state are impaired with E. coli, including significant stretches of the Wabash River. Sewer overflows and untreated stormwater and wastewater flowing into nearby waterways were cited as the largest sources of the bacteria. Failing septic systems, she said, are one of the leading contributors.


According to the Indiana Department of Health, more than 800,000 onsite sewage disposal systems are currently in use throughout the state. Local health departments issue more than 15,000 permits annually for new systems, and about 6,000 permits for repairs.

Keeping track of where those systems are — and their current conditions — is left largely to local health departments or other units of government. There currently is no statewide system for tracking their existence, or which ones are in need of repair. IDOH estimates that as many as 200,000 of those systems are inadequate, failing or in the process of failing.

The environmental and public health risks, officials say, are alarming.

“We have a low water IQ as a society,” said Tim Stottlemyer, board president of Clear Choices Clean Water, a national program designed to raise awareness among consumers about the impacts their daily lifestyle choices have on the nation’s waterways. Since E. coli is one of the most abundant pollutants in surface waters, he said, “it should be higher on our priority list to do something about it. I’m not convinced that this legislation is the right approach to help solve that problem.”

Stottlemyer said a better approach would include providing funding and other resources for local health departments to help property owners keep tabs on their drainage systems and mitigate problems when they arise.

“Instead of tying the hands of health agencies, give them more resources to help them do their job better,” Stottlemyer said.


In Madison County, officials have access to septic system records dating back to 1974, according to Joe Davis, deputy administrator and environmental supervisor for the Madison County Health Department. But, he noted, converting those paper records to electronic form is a painstaking process.

“Back then it was a one-page application with a soil analysis,” Davis said. “They’re not available online, and a big reason is that some of those sites were rural sites, P.O. boxes and so forth. Converting them takes time.”

Davis said concerns expressed over HEA 1402 are understandable, but he stopped short of arguing that the new law could be used to skirt common-sense health and environmental regulations.

“I think the circumstances where a homeowner would choose to do that would be very, very few,” he said. “With new construction, we’re expected to meet the code to a T.”

Standards preserved in state codes, he added, ensure that residential sewage systems are built to the highest standards possible.

“Everybody wants to protect the environment,” he said. “I don’t think an engineer is going to say, well, we’re going to bypass the health department and run your system into the creek. I don’t foresee a lot of environmental impact with this.”

Advocates have floated the idea of either a state law or encouraging local governments to pass ordinances mandating periodic inspections of sewer systems. They acknowledge, though, that existing recommendations of inspections approximately every three years already cover much of that ground.

“I suppose that would depend on the (time) period (specified),” Davis said. “I don’t think it’s something that needs to be done real often.”

Added Frank: “From what I know of septic systems and the fact that if they’re not maintained correctly, we do wind up with these public health and environmental problems from leaking sewage, it does make sense that septic systems should be inspected periodically.”

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