March 20, 1996 in Nation/World

Woes Overflow Septic System Unfixable

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Karen Davisson got a real stinker when she bought her Stanley Hill home.

Two months after dropping $115,000 for the hillside house in late 1991, she flushed the toilet and it overflowed. She called a plumber, but it happened again.

Then it got worse.

She did laundry and the drain overflowed. She washed dishes and her daughter’s bedroom flooded. Heavy rains made the house reek of sewage.

Four years later, Davisson conserves water as if living in a desert. She does laundry away from home and flushes the toilet only twice a day. Her family of three even shares bath water - a deep embarrassment for her 15-year-old daughter.

“It’s like living in a prison,” Davisson said.

She’s not alone.

Davisson, like hundreds of Kootenai County residents, lives in a house attached to a septic system prone to failure. But like only a handful of others, Davisson lives where experts say the problem may never go away - even if she pays the $12,000 to replace the current system.

“That house has had two or three systems and they’ve all failed,” said Ken Lustig, environmental director for Panhandle Health District. “Guaranteeing a fix would be like guaranteeing open-heart surgery.”

What’s worse, Lustig said, is while some old homes are built in predictably risky places, there’s no easy way to notify new buyers that the sewage system could fail.

“It’s like buying a used car,” Lustig said. “It may last forever. Or it may get 20 miles down the road and blow a rod.”

Lustig sees the problem a few times a year - especially in old houses built on hillsides where soils are porous clay. Solid waste gets deposited in the septic tank, but the sewer water drains so slowly it backs through the system and into the house.

If the lot is small, like the Davissons’, there may be no place to put an alternate drainfield system. Other options - like a series of buried holding tanks called dry wells - may not hold up during heavy storms.

Health District officials have even seen two homes abandoned because the system was unfixable and the backwater became unbearable.

“One couple was in two to three weeks when it failed,” said Ken Babin, environmental health specialist. “We tried everything, but eventually they just give it back to the bank.”

Fourteen years later, the house remains empty, he said.

“The big question is: How do you inform people?” Babin asked.

In Davisson’s case, the signs were there, but she didn’t know to look. But even then, they were only signs.

Jody Nygaard, now an Orofino resident, lived in the 15-year-old house until 1990. She was having trouble even then.

“We were having the septic tank pumped once a month,” she said. “The health department even came out because our sewage was flowing into the neighbor’s yard.”

Nygaard’s husband ripped up the back yard and began installing dry wells. The couple, then going through a bitter divorce, abruptly sold the house to real estate agent Jim McCoy.

“As far as I know they got it fixed,” Nygaard said.

When Davisson bought the house less than a year later, listing sheets indicated the septic system was fine. So Davisson sued ERA broker Dan Davis, McCoy’s boss at the time. The Davissons lost.

“It was working fine when they bought it,” Davis said. “The Davissons were mad as hell, but I had no idea it had failed before.”

The Davissons should have checked with the health district, where there was a record of past problems, Babin said. But even that would only have told them there once was a problem.

The new system was properly permitted and, Davis said, health district-approved.

“In the end, it really is a buyer beware issue,” Babin said. “We can tell them the dangers, but sometimes people will still take the risk.”

For now, the Davissons continue to challenge Davis in court. They continue to conserve water and have ripped all the carpet out of the basement.

“It’s no way to live,” Davisson said. “But what can we do?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WAYS TO HELP YOUR SEPTIC SYSTEM COPE Coeur d’Alene Homeowners with septic tanks can’t always prevent a system failure - but they can better their odds. Health officials suggest a few simple tips to care for septic tanks. For starters, pump the tank regularly. Septic tanks only temporarily hold solid waste and need to be emptied every two to five years depending on size and use. If the tanks get too full, waste water will begin backing up. Panhandle Health District supervisor Ken Babin also warns septic owners not to overuse - or abuse - garbage disposals. One gardening buff repeatedly stuffed flower petals and stems down the disposal “she filled the tank in less than a year.” Babin also suggests limiting water use. Septic tank owners probably should not let water run to prevent pipes from freezing in winter; it can flood drainfields. Babin once worked with a duplex dweller who had 18 people living next door, taking showers, washing dishes and doing laundry. “Both sides lost out,” he said. Tips to reduce water use include: Run dishwashers and washing machines one at a time; Fix leaky faucets promptly; Don’t wash more than two loads of laundry in a day; Use water-saving bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Babin also urged residents not to build or drive over drainfields - it compacts the soil. For more information, septic system owners can pick up maintenance brochures from Panhandle Health, at 2195 Ironwood Court in Coeur d’Alene. - Craig Welch

This sidebar appeared with the story: WAYS TO HELP YOUR SEPTIC SYSTEM COPE Coeur d’Alene Homeowners with septic tanks can’t always prevent a system failure - but they can better their odds. Health officials suggest a few simple tips to care for septic tanks. For starters, pump the tank regularly. Septic tanks only temporarily hold solid waste and need to be emptied every two to five years depending on size and use. If the tanks get too full, waste water will begin backing up. Panhandle Health District supervisor Ken Babin also warns septic owners not to overuse - or abuse - garbage disposals. One gardening buff repeatedly stuffed flower petals and stems down the disposal “she filled the tank in less than a year.” Babin also suggests limiting water use. Septic tank owners probably should not let water run to prevent pipes from freezing in winter; it can flood drainfields. Babin once worked with a duplex dweller who had 18 people living next door, taking showers, washing dishes and doing laundry. “Both sides lost out,” he said. Tips to reduce water use include: Run dishwashers and washing machines one at a time; Fix leaky faucets promptly; Don’t wash more than two loads of laundry in a day; Use water-saving bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Babin also urged residents not to build or drive over drainfields - it compacts the soil. For more information, septic system owners can pick up maintenance brochures from Panhandle Health, at 2195 Ironwood Court in Coeur d’Alene. - Craig Welch

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