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Flushing plan could damage septic systems

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia American Water's recommendation for flushing your home plumbing system of contaminants doesn't take septic tanks into enough consideration, according to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

Numerous water company customers in rural areas have septic systems.

"It has the potential to be a very large issue," said Anita Ray, director for the department's environmental health division.

The department has been in contact with the Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office to address the potential impact flushing could have, Ray said.

Guidelines for flushing septic systems are different from those recommended to WVAW's customers who use public sewers, but those aren't listed specifically on the water company's website.

Instead, the water company referred those customers to their local health departments for flushing instructions.

Water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said Wednesday the issue hadn't been brought to the attention of the agencies that created the flushing guidance document.

"It's a multi-agency document," Jordan said of the flushing instructions posted online. "It's certainly not a document that our company is trying to be unwavering on."

Jordan said if updates need to be made, the water company and public officials would be willing to discuss it.

Ray said too much flow can cause two kinds of septic system failures. Solids can be stirred, causing blockage in a system's distribution pipes. Also, the system can become overwhelmed and flood a customer's drain field.

The blockage will lead to repairs, and the drain field flood means the system will need to rest for 30 days, Ray said.

Replacing the entire septic system would be a "worst-case scenario," which can cost thousands of dollars.

"People are concerned," Ray said, "because they know it is expensive."

Health departments are pointing customers affected by last week's chemical spill to recommendations from the West Virginia Office of Environmental Health Services' public health sanitation division. Those were issued via email Tuesday afternoon, according to correspondence obtained by the Gazette.

Those recommendations suggest that customers with septic tanks flush their water onto the ground, rather than into their septic tanks, by attaching a hose to faucets. Instructions note, "Garden hoses will not connect to most faucets, however, making this connection difficult."

Most homes' sinks don't come equipped with screw-in faucets. For those without, the state recommends limiting the amount of water running through pipes during flushing by running one fixture at a time.

"That's the best recommendation that could probably be given, in order to keep those solids from going out to stop up the field," Ray said.

While chemists working with the water company have told health departments the chemical should break down in soil after about 30 days, Ray said it's not clear what impact the chemical will have on the structural integrity of septic tanks.

The 30-day breakdown period hasn't been verified, she said.

"That's all we can do," Ray said of flushing recommendations. "People have to flush their system and, realistically, that's where it's going to end up is in the ground."

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department is expecting to field calls regarding septic system failures, Ray said.

Calls to the Office of Environmental Health Services were not returned.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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