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Environment & Climate Change

Bacteria and viruses from human waste getting into Michigan water

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Toilet paper and waste from an outlet pipe spill into a tributary of the Pine River.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Molly Rippke is an aquatic biologist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy indicates there are 1.4 million homes in Michigan that are not hooked up to a sewer system. Many use septic tank systems. But Molly Rippke, an aquatic biologist with the agency, says there’s a big problem. 

“We estimate that about 24% of them are failing to the point that they could contaminate surface or ground water. And to go even farther, five percent of the homes in Michigan that should be relying on a septic system, are actually having an illicit discharge to surface waters of the state," she said.

That means human waste is polluting rivers and lakes. The state government does not have legal authority to fix the problem.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Human waste is getting into a pipe that should only be rainwater runoff.

It was raining in Riverdale as I walked with a couple of residents and a local health department official. This town of fewer than 120 homes is about an hour north of Lansing. They're walking block to block, taking off manhole covers. They’re checking to see if the water is running clear in the pipes. As Bob Lombard shows me, in some places it’s not clear.

LG: I can smell that from here.

BL: There you go. Roses.

LG: That’s pretty nasty.

BL: You’ll love the outlet then.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Bob Lombard and some of his neighbors in Riverdale are trying to find help to stop human waste from flowing into the Pine River.

Lombard has lived in Riverdale since he was a kid. He takes us down to a tributary of the Pine River.

The “outlet” is a corrugated pipe, spilling its contents into the creek.

Liz Braddock is with the Mid-Michigan District Health Department. She described what we were seeing.

LB: “We have a pipe that has constant flow. It smells like sewage. And from what I'm looking at, there seems to be evidence of possibly some toilet paper coming into the, um, into the stream.”  

LG: “Yeah, I think that’s more than a little evidence.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Braving the rain and sewage. Liz Braddock is the Environmental Health Division Director at the Mid-Michigan District Health Department.

LB: “So, there's some type of a connection, but there's an illicit discharge somewhere. And when people flush the toilet, it's connected to this drain that is discharging into the stream that goes into the Pine River.”

Deteriorating white toilet paper fans out away from the pipe for several feet.

“We moved here in 1977, it's been like that ever since. Long time," Bob Lombard said.

LG: “Why is it nobody actually said something about this?”

LB: “We were more worried about the crap above ground than below ground.”

In other words, it's a small town. It's an economically depressed area. Stirring up issues that could cost a neighbor thousands of dollars is asking for trouble.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Marcus Cheatham is the Health Officer for the Mid-Michigan District Health Department.

The state estimates there are thousands of places like Riverdale. Add to the human feces, the livestock manure spread on farm fields, and health officials think we’re headed for a disaster.  

Marcus Cheatham is the Health Officer with the Mid-Michigan District Health Department.

“Research (shows) we have human feces, through DNA testing, in our rivers and lakes, and that carries with it pathogens. So any kind of human pathogen, giardia, campylobacter, E. coli, viruses, different viruses,” he said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Bob Lombard holds a manhole cover open while Liz Braddock squirts dye to determine where sewage enters a nearby stream.

That’s bad. People can get sick, really sick. But Cheatham says all those nutrients from human and livestock waste are setting the stage for another health worry: cyanobacteria. Its toxins could start killing people.

“It's just a fascinating and difficult problem when you have billions of dollars in underground infrastructure all over Michigan that's in jeopardy of failing, and we're seeing this rising tide of organic pollution and will we be able to figure out a way to deal with it?” Cheatham said.  

Michigan does not inspect septic systems to see if they’re working. It doesn't even check to see if a house even has a system. A handful of counties do inspections when a house is sold. But if the septic system is failing at a house that doesn’t sell for decades, it’s polluting the entire time.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan State University professor Joan Rose was the 2016 recipient of the Stockholm Water Prize.

Joan Rose at Michigan State University is an internationally recognized expert on these kinds of water issues. She says even when septic systems are working correctly, they’re not good enough. There’s no disinfection. Bacteria and viruses escape.

“So anytime anybody gets sick, these organisms are going into our septic tanks. These are small enough to get through the soil in many cases so they can reach groundwater. They could also reach surface water.”

Even with shortcomings like that, a well maintained septic system is better than nothing.  

Back in Riverdale, Bob Lombard and some of his neighbors are trying to get some state and federal help to stop human waste from going into the Pine River. Replacing a septic system can run as high as $40,000. The value of some houses is less than that.

The Mid-Michigan District Health Officer, Marcus Cheatham, says fixing this problem should be just as much of a priority as fixing Michigan’s roads. But septic systems are underground, out of sight and out of mind.