Monday, August 20, 2012

Environmental Health Activity Picks Up

Health departments deal with a wide variety of environmental concerns, but the three best known are 1) ground water including wells, 2) septic systems and land inspections to determine the suitability of property for systems, and 3) food safety, especially inspections of restaurants and other food service establishments. These inspections keep people safe from outbreaks of serious illness like e-coli, salmonella and cryptosporidium.

Through the third quarter of our 2011-2012 fiscal year MMDHD is noticing an increase in well and septic permit activity and in the number of food service inspections. Check out the table below.

2011-2012 YTD
Expected Final
On-Site Sewage Applications
Well Applications
Food Service Inspections

The table shows that we expect to do 45 more septic system inspections this year than last, 73 more wells, and over 300 more food service inspections. I share these numbers with you because they indicate that there may be an increase in economic activity in our area. In general, requests for inspections precede construction and renovation projects. We see the same trend across all three counties. This is great news! It is MMDHD’s goal to be sure all these projects are completed as quickly as possible. However, you should also know that this activity places some strain on our sanitarians who are working very hard to keep up with the demand.

In fact, we increased our output over the first three quarters of 2011-12 with a slightly reduced workforce. Because of budget shortfalls in 2011-12, we had to reduce the hours of work of some employees. The reduced hours combined with the increase in the demand for inspections has meant that the queue of folks waiting for inspections has gotten longer. On average the wait for an inspection has increased from 5 to 8 days.

We are aware that this has led to a few cases to frayed nerves on the part of folks trying to get a permit or inspection. There are a couple of things that can be done about this: First, over the winter, construction work slows down and our work load will too. This winter we plan to touch base with the municipalities to be sure local code enforcement personnel understand the importance of promptly directing homeowners and businesses that are making changes to well, septic or food service systems to the health department. If we are contacted at the beginning of a project we can ensure that things are done correctly from the start. The municipalities can help ensure that this happens.

Second, I’d like to remind residents that if you don’t think you got a fair deal getting a permit or inspection, you have a right to appeal to the Board of Health. All you have to do is call the health department and ask for an appeal. Don’t be afraid to call. Usually just making a call leads to a problem getting cleared up. In fact, we handle very few appeals because the truth is our sanitarians usually do an outstanding job. But I think knowing that you don’t have to accept an inspector’s first judgment can make the process less intimidating.

In addition to handling our increased workload this summer, we have also been trying to help residents affected by dry wells. Wells go dry all the time for a variety of reasons including problems with the well itself. But this summer dry weather combined with increased irrigation caused an increase in dry wells. This problem has been especially serious in Gratiot County where the subsoil and rock are less permeable to water.

Many parts of Michigan are seeking increases in irrigated agriculture, which by itself is not a bad thing. In spite of the dry weather, we grew plenty of human and animal food crops. However, as this trend continues, we will need to do a better job of managing our ground water. I grew up out west. There are many places out west now where you can no longer farm, because people resisted water management and eventually pumped all the water out of the ground. Michigan, with an abundance of clean, tasty ground water is far from facing that problem. But to avoid it altogether we will have to balance residential and agricultural uses better, and irrigate more efficiently. Pay attention to Senate Bill 1008 which proposes to reinstate DEQ powers to mediate conflicts over ground water. Senator Roger Kahn is one of the sponsors of this bill.

If you have been affected by a dry well, especially if you live in Gratiot County, go to the health department’s website at and fill out a Well Assessment form.

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