Repairing septic systems is key to protecting Puget Sound shellfish

“I’ve found my calling,” says Freeland, a retired septic system consultant who prefers to go through Uncle Buddy or The Shit Whisperer, over the phone.

For most of us, however, septic tanks and leaching fields do not inspire a sense of the divine. But ignoring the poop passages under our feet is something the people of the Puget Sound area can’t afford to do.

“Human sewage and animal waste are the main vectors of pollution impacting shellfish in the Puget Sound area and parts of Puget Sound,” says Mindy Roberts, Puget Sound Program Director at the Washington Environmental Council. . These creatures are already confronted with the acidification of the oceans and the warming of the waters which cause enormous mortalities, as during the heat wave of June 2021.

It is for this reason that the Puget Sound Partnership, in its annual State of the Sound report, tracks the inventory, inspection and repair of septic systems in designated high-risk areas. The report looks at progress made across dozens of key indicators – known as “vital signs” – of the health of the estuary.

Although septic tank maintenance has not quite reached the levels targeted by the partnership by 2020, it is among 11 of the 52 ‘vital signs’ indicators listed as showing a positive trend – a ray of hope in a report filled with slow progress made slower in a pandemic year.

Well-maintained septic systems can be low-impact ways of managing an inevitable life, says Jeremy Simmons, head of the wastewater section in the office of environmental health and safety at the Washington Department of Health.

When septic tanks fail, untreated human waste and all of its nutrients, bacteria (especially fecal coliforms), viruses and pharmaceuticals flow not only into the homes of unsuspecting people, but also into the fragile ecosystem of Puget Sound. The dangerous cocktail threatens recreation and bioaccumulates in the seashells that serve a $ 107 million industry and support Indigenous communities already facing the full brunt of the impacts of the climate crisis. Many of these systems abut shorelines, where failures can lead to direct unfiltered sound impulses and threaten human health.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Salish Sea is one of North America’s leading producers of shellfish, harvested both commercially and recreationally on plates around the world. In addition to climate change, regional development and the associated infrastructure we use to manage waste affects the composition of shellfish, including clams, geoduck clams, mussels and oysters. As filter feeders who indiscriminately consume whatever washes up on their beds, seashells are likely to siphon off metals, viruses carried by garbage and prescription drugs, and other harmful pollutants into their soft tissues and even their tissues. shells. This puts anyone who is unlucky enough to consume them on the path to disease and poisoning.

While nutrient overload can lead to algal blooms that disrupt aquatic ecosystems, concerns about fecal matter primarily relate to people who eat contaminated shellfish. “Crustaceans are fairly robust little animals. And as long as there are no specific chemicals that kill them, or sediment that suffocates them, they will likely survive, ”says Dr Sheri Tonn, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Pacific Luthernan University and co-founder of Communities for a Healthy Bay.

New financial resources for repairing costly septic systems and efforts to recover incomplete septic infrastructure have helped the region continue to progress. But there is a lot of room for growth, both in the way we maintain septic systems and in the way they are monitored. As climate change brings heavy rainfall, sea level rise and flooding, and population growth and development increase pressure on waste management systems, environmental groups and government agencies are watching. near the septic tanks.

Is septic surveillance on track?

Puget Sound has made the most progress in identifying the location of septic tanks, with room for improved inspections and repairs.

The Puget Sound Partnership’s 2020 target, set in 2011, was for the region’s 12 public health systems to complete on-site sewerage inventory in specially designated areas, be up to date with 95% inspections and correct all system failures. Designated areas covered by the report include those located near potential or threatened shellfish harvesting sites, including marine recovery areas and shellfish protection districts, but not all septic tanks in the region. A 2011 Puget Sound Partnership draft tech note also set a target of a net 10.80 acre increase in shellfish harvesting area.

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