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PolitiFact Florida | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

PolitiFact Florida: Citing cost, some want to flush state septic tank inspection rule

Members of the state Legislature who resoundingly voted in 2010 to require people to have their septic tanks inspected once every five years now say the new law — sorry for the pun — stinks.

The idea, to help prevent sewage from leaking out of septic tanks and into the state groundwater system, isn't the problem, they say. It's the cost to septic tank owners. Legislators agreed in November to delay implementation of the bill from Jan. 1, 2011, until July to halt any fiscal impact on septic tank owners.

And now, the entire proposal appears to be — okay, last pun — circling the drain.

State Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, who voted for the inspection requirement but is now leading a fight to have it removed or replaced, said last week the law has been met with almost "unanimous disapproval," and that many septic tank owners are not in areas where they would affect water quality, anyway. And Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, another "Yes" vote in 2010, declared the statewide requirement unnecessary.

But Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, said he saw merits in the law (which he voted for, too).

The inspection will help keep sewage from entering the water system. It will keep homeowners' septic tanks in better shape. And, Jones said, the cost is marginal.

"I don't think it's that expensive to spend $100 to $150 every five years," he said.

Does all this talk and concern boil down to $30 a year? PolitiFact Florida decided to find out.

Tanks go unchecked

According to the Department of Health, there are more than 2.6 million septic sewage systems in Florida serving about a third of the state's population. But less than 1 percent of the state's systems — about 17,000 — are being inspected and serviced. In most cases, septic systems are only checked when they fail.

And that's the problem. Leaky septic tanks are major sources of water pollution, officials say.

So a group of legislators worked for years to try to force inspections. The law that finally passed in 2010 attempted to mute concerns over cost. It requires inspections every five years (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests an inspection every three to five years), creates a grant program for low-income homeowners and allows certain homeowners to request a one-time, one-year inspection extension.

But concerns over the cost to homeowners escalated, anyway. Legislators passed a measure that delayed inspections during a November special session, and then waited until Gov. Rick Scott took office to send the bill to the governor's office to prevent a veto from Gov. Charlie Crist. Scott let the delay become law without his signature.

The requirement, interestingly enough, would create hundreds "if not thousands" of private-sector jobs because of a shortage of septic tank inspectors, according to a state Senate analysis.

Cost of an inspection

All this leads to the main point of this fact check — just how much would an inspection cost?

Jones said the cost of the inspection is between $100 and $150, to be paid once every five years. But we found references to the inspection costing $500. And then other references to $200.

Michelle Dahnke, a health department spokeswoman, said the state estimated an inspection would cost $150, but that private contractors ultimately would set the price.

So we asked two.

Ellen Vause, president of Florida Septic in Hawthorne, said the cost of the inspection will depend on what the state requires and where the septic tank is located. Vause said that a standard inspection, which would include pumping out sewage from a septic tank, costs $150-$300 in North Florida, and $200-$350 in South Florida. The difference is the cost to dispose of the sludge.

Bob Himschoot, a member of the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association and an owner of a septic tank contracting company in Fort Myers, pegged the cost higher — from $325 to $500.

But the cost of the inspection is only one part of the problem. The worry is that the inspector finds something wrong.

It's like going to the auto shop for an oil change and finding out your brakes need work.

In draft rules, the state would require septic tank owners to repair tanks that are cracked and replace systems where sewage is flowing directly into the ground.

Should your system need to replaced entirely — systems generally last between 20 and 30 years — that will cost $5,000 to $7,500 on average.

"It's just another thing for the government to get mixed up with when they have no business sticking their nose in there," said Ralph Pohl, 77, who installed a septic tank 18 years ago at his home in Seacrest in the Panhandle and hasn't had it inspected once. Pohl reports no problems with his system. "To force an inspector to come out and dig out a perfectly operating septic tank — I don't see the point."

There's another point to consider when talking about the cost of a septic tank inspection. People using septic tanks don't pay for a central sewer system. People without septic tanks do.

We checked three places — St. Petersburg, Lakeland and Marion County — and found that the typical sewer system customer in those areas pay $375-$400 a year for sewer service.

Over five years, that's $1,875-$2,000 in sewer charges versus nothing.

Our ruling

Jones said a septic tank inspection would cost $100 to $150, citing a state estimate. Spread over five years, that's an investment of as little as $30 a year — much less than homeowners with a central sewer system pay.

But that's not telling the entire story. Experts we talked to said the price of an inspection could cost up to $500 and depends on other variables. On top of that, the inspection could uncover problems requiring repairs at additional cost. That's obviously part of the intent of the bill, but it comes at a cost nevertheless.

That's enough of difference to rate this claim Half True.

The statement

Says required state septic inspections would cost septic tank owners $100 to $150 every five years.

State Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, in a committee hearing.

The ruling

Jones relies on a health department estimate but private septic tank inspectors peg the cost slightly higher. If an inspection finds a problem, repair costs would likely be even higher. We rate this statement Half True.

PolitiFact Florida: Citing cost, some want to flush state septic tank inspection rule 02/06/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 6, 2011 9:36pm]
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