One new homeowner in the Wellington subdivision sometimes won’t let his kids play in the back yard.
Another family can’t take a bath while others take some of their dirty laundry to laundromats for fear too much water will back up their septic system.
All these families thought they were buying new homes and wouldn’t have to worry about replacing part or all of their septic system and drainfield for 20 years.
But a lack of information on soil content resulted in too-small systems, and many families are now finding out about the problem the hard way. They’re spending money to enlarge the systems or waiting out the hazard in hopes Spokane County can extend a new sewer to the neighborhood.
“It’s causing a lot of fear for a lot of people in this neighborhood. Not everyone has $3,000 sitting around to replace a drainfield,” said Todd Scofield, of 16501 N. Cincinnati Court, a homeowner who has researched the problem and written a letter to the county health district and commissioners.
Out of 52 homes in Wellington Phase One, located near Midway Elementary School in Colbert, nine septic systems have already been enlarged or replaced and five others are failing, according to Scofield, an engineer with Indian Health Services. All the homes are less than five years old.
The problem is not with the systems themselves but the soil, which will not absorb liquid rapidly because of a concept known as silt banding.
Worse than clay, the banding is like a sheet of plastic. Because the water can’t go down, it comes to the surface, leaving yards wet and boggy, often with an odor.
The silt layer was not detected when the Spokane County Health District, which has responsibility to determine the adequacy of individual on-site drainfields, tested the soil with six-foot deep soil samples. The district also issues permits for systems and establishes design standards.
“There’s a thin layer of silt that’s in the soil and hard to detect on soil profiles. We did pick this up later and in looking at a map can tell you where it runs now,” said David Swank, director of environmental health. “It’s hard to pick up in a soil profile. You have to look at the failures and analyze them.”
District Director Dr. John Beare said he wasn’t aware there was a problem until Scofield’s letter. He’s still analyzing the failures. “Until I get the information I can’t say what is and isn’t our fault,” he said.
Dampness over the 400-square-foot tanks alerted residents in Wellington that the systems are not working properly.
To make adjustments, some are cutting back on the use of water.
Mary Scofield said she doesn’t take a bath or use the dishwasher and limits laundry to two loads a day.
Matt Solum, a Northwest Airlines pilot, said his family takes its heavier wash loads to a self-service laundry.
On days when the yard is boggy, Dale Willhite doesn’t let his kids play in the back yard where his drainfield is located.
“There’s a public health issue here,” Willhite said.
The circumstances prompted other homeowners to spend money themselves on a larger system.
Mike Vancleef, a buyer for URM Stores, doubled the drainage space in his system to 800 square feet. More surface area disperses the water more.
With two tanks, he can divert the water back and forth.
In addition to spending $2,000 for the work, he had to make room for the backhoe by taking down a fence and a dog kennel and removing an underground sprinkler system.
He had to replant grass twice because the hot summer in 1994 killed new seed.
“We were real angry at first,” he said, sitting with his wife Deedee in their kitchen. “But when you get into hiring an attorney, it costs as much to sue as to put in a new drainfield.
“We finally got past the anger.”
Harley Douglass, one builder in the subdivision, has forked out thousands of dollars replacing at least three systems that failed within a one-year warranty period.
Douglass declined to discuss the situation.
Homeowners are not blaming builders, and one even said Douglass went out of his way to pay for a new system and correct the problem at a cost of $2,500.
“It’s not the builders’ fault; it’s the county that did the testing,” said Scofield. “We’re not trying to point out who made the mistake. We’re trying to correct it.”
Correcting it would mean allowing homes to connect to a new $9 million sewer interceptor line that’s being built to Midway Road. The hookup would send wastewater to the city’s centralized treatment plant.
But under the county’s priority system, the homes now failing aren’t due to connect until the year 2010 even though the excise tax paid on the sale of the homes helped fund bonds for the North Spokane sewer project.
The priority for sewers is established by the county utilities department and the health district. In light of the failures, Beare and Swank said the district would recommend making the area a higher priority.
“I think what the citizens are worried about is, ‘Am I going to be next,”’ said Swank.
From an engineering standpoint, sewers are already planned for the second phase of Wellington, and the interceptor would be within reach by spring, said Dean Fowler of the county utilities department.
Even residents who already have spent money for septic upgrades would welcome that.
Keith Bird has five children and said his system failed 11 months after buying a home from Douglass. The builder made improvements and added a new septic system that utilized gravel and pipes.
Resident Mike Comstock had to use his entire front lawn to expand his system.
In both cases there is no extra land for another drainfield if a new problem emerges.
“At 11 months into my home, we don’t have an alternative drainfield site,” Bird said. “If it lasts 20 to 30 years, we don’t have a problem. If it lasts another year, we have a critical problem.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map: Septic problems
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