Sewage Treatment Facilities: And What You Can Do to Stop Them

I have received numerous calls and emails from people voicing their concerns about being forced to hook up to the city sewer. Although I support septic, when addressing a group as an educator, I try to be fair and balanced in pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of both treatment facilities and onsite systems. I try to stay away from the political side of the debate, primarily because I work with numerous government agencies and learning institutions. However, I can no longer remain quiet because I have seen too much abuse of the process that is going to affect all of us for years to come.

Over the last 20 years, city and town leaders have approached their constituents telling them that the damage from septic systems was ruining the environment, and if they wanted to protect the habitat for future generations, a sewage treatment facility would need to be built ASAP. What they neglected to tell people is why they had this sudden and urgent ecological concern…the city had climbed into bed with private industry.

In many cases, this critical mission was started when a developer came into a community with plans to build high-rise condos, multimillion dollar homes, and commercial properties. The big selling point—for the city—was how this project would bring in millions of dollars a year in property taxes.

The city also realized that a project of this magnitude would require a full-scale sewage treatment facility. At the same time, they knew this would be a progressive move for their community, so they struck a deal—they would build the treatment facility, and the developer would go ahead with the project.

Now, the engineering firms come in offering to design and build the project, and this is where things get really interesting. Building sewage treatment facilities and running the sewer mains is a multi-billion dollar a year business. Even a small project of less than 1,000 homes can easily exceed $10 million. With contracts of this magnitude up for grabs, inappropriate business relationships and conflicts of interest are almost guaranteed to occur.

The city needs to get the project started at this point, and, because most people are too busy earning a living, the city, too often, receives little opposition. Besides, most people feel that their elected officials will be looking out for their best interests. And for those few that do try to fight it, they are discredited and labeled apathetic toward the environment because who, really, can argue against a modern treatment facility?

And to ensure that there is as little resistance as possible, the costs are wrapped up in confusing jargon that could even confuse a CPA. Not to mention, under-bidding is common, with bidders knowing full well that, once the roads are dug-up and the plant is half-built, the money will have to be raised in order to complete the project. Here are the true costs of a treatment plant:

• The cost of the land to build the treatment plant on. This is not donated land—someone owns it, and they will usually get premium dollar for it. And if there happens to be a few homes in the way, no problem, the city can force the people out, citing eminent domain.
• The cost to build the plan. The companies that do this don’t donate their time or materials, either. They get paid in full.
• The cost to dig-up the streets, lay the sewer mains, install pumping stations, and resurface streets. Again, paid in full.
• The cost to hook-up to the sewer mains. This is the part most people believe to be their only expense.

And guess who pays for this? You do with your taxes and assessment fees. In most cases, you will pay $30- to $60 thousand just to get the plant built, and sewer mains run and hooked up. And don’t forget that now you have a monthly sewer bill that will usually range $500 to $1,500 per year.

“But they said we would get grants to pay for it.”

Grants only pay a small fraction of the costs. This is something else no one will tell you—when you take grant money from the state or federal government, they require that you use designs, materials and companies that only they approve, and this can increase the costs. In other words, you would have been better off not taking the grant money. And where do you think grant money comes from? Also your taxes. So even if grants pay for the whole project, everyone still ends up paying for it somehow.

But the financial damages are far from done. Since the city was nice enough to provide you with another public utility, also considered a property improvement, your property taxes will automatically go up. And, oh, but it gets worse. Now the developer who came in and built those huge multimillion dollar structures not only raised your property values, but guess what else he raised? Your property taxes. Some residents will be forced to move because they can no longer afford to pay the taxes on their property.

And here is a real irony for you—developers have overbuilt. There aren’t enough people to buy the new high-buck condos and mansions, and many of these developments are now sitting half-empty. That means lives were disrupted for a failed project.

Remember that environmental damage that needed to be addressed? Well, it’s gone up almost 600% in the last 10 years alone! You see, treatment facilities don’t do a very good job of, well, treatment to start with. They reduce contaminates, not eliminate them, and then you, the residents, have frequent breakdowns, which allow millions of gallons of raw sewage into your waterways. Even heavy rains can overload the system.

To be fair, septic systems are doing some of the damage, but not nearly what the pro-pipe people claim. They exaggerate the figures to shock homeowners into agreeing that they need a treatment facility. They’re not doing damage for the “septic systems are inferior” reasons that the pro-pipe people give either. They are doing damage because they were not properly designed in the first place.

Back in the old days, very little thought was put into onsite systems. Essentially, people were just digging holes to dump their sewage into. In the last few decades, however, onsite design and technology has evolved to the point where they will do the following:

• Produce zero pollution.
• Last indefinitely if used and maintained properly (treatment plants only last 13 years, on average).
• Cost $5- to $15,000 per household (a fraction of the cost of
a treatment facility).
• Recharge the local water tables.

Treatment facilities can not match any of these points, but, of course, if people stick with their septic systems, it would mean the developers would be forced to pay for their own sewage treatment methods. That would mean the city then wouldn’t profit from it.

That doesn’t mean all city leaders are corrupt. There have been a few mayors, city planners and council members who have come forward claiming that they were misled by engineering firms, citing flawed environmental studies, not disclosing the actual costs of the project, and not knowing that onsite systems were a viable alternative.

If the city says they want to build a treatment facility, you can fight it, and winning is relatively easy. All you have to do is get the people that are on septic systems to have their systems upgraded to meet the codes that are on the books today, not 30 years ago.

If you do that, when the city comes around saying you need to build a sewage treatment facility to protect the environment you can say, “Thanks, but no thanks. We already took steps to protect our environment, and we are not going to pay millions of dollars for something that we no longer need, nor will we finance a public project for a private developer so they can build more high-rises and movie theaters.”

The last time I checked, we still live in a democracy, which means we have the right and the responsibility to voice our opinions and have the ability to vote on and control the choices our leaders make that will affect our financial and environmental future.

Story by Jim vonMeier

Jim vonMeier performs educational programs directed at homeowners teaching them the health and environmental need for proper septic systems and how to find a certified septic professional to inspect/design/install/maintain their systems. He has also represented homeowners in their fight against public sewer projects and speaks at contractor programs around the country on the subject of customer service.

Jim can be reached at 1-763-856-3800 or at

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