Mandatory Septic Tank Pumping – A story of Government Incompetence by Steve Connolly

Published January 1, 2019

History

In 1981, the Quebec government invoked law Q-2, r.8 (now referred to as law Q-2, r-22) to introduce mandatory septic tank pumping for rural communities in the province. This law has never been supported by research or documented evidence to justify its existence. At first, almost no municipality moved to implement it. Nearby Chelsea, seeking to promote its image to be environmentally ‘green,’ was one of the first municipalities in Quebec to blindly implement the law in the early 1990’s. Years later, Chelsea changed its septic tank pumping frequency from two years to three years. Its politicians have unnecessarily wasted millions of taxpayer dollars. Chelsea recently reverted to a two-year pumping frequency again simply because, “It’s the law.” It should be noted that the law provides an escape from forced tank pumping. Alternatively, a municipality may require that each septic tank be measured each year and, if found necessary, it can be emptied. Although, using summer students, this method would be less costly, it would still be unnecessary and foolish. Few, if any, municipalities have done this.

As of 2014, upon my last visit to again present my concerns re this foolish program to the responsible Director within the Ministry of Environment, I was informed that only 55% of MRCs in Quebec had implemented the program. I was again informed that the problem law Q-2, r.8 was trying address has never been technically defined. There were no plans to review the program although it was recognized that it is flawed. Municipalities have never been penalized for non-compliance to the law and there are no plans to do so. In 2004, the Municipal Regional Council Valley Gatineau, MRCVG, announced that it was going to implement this program in 2005. The citizens, population of 20,000, were purposely not consulted. Ignoring costs, uninformed and without question, 16 of the 17 MRCVG municipalities signed a 20-year agreement to force septic tank pumping upon their residents.

At this time, I had been a councillor for the Low Municipality and after some research was able to convince my fellow council members that the Q-2, r.8 program was unsubstantiated, unnecessary and very expensive. Our municipality approved spending to establish the Septic Waste Treatment Facility, SWTF, at Kazabazua but refused to sign the agreement to force regular septic tank pumping upon our residents.

Leadership of the MRCVG has been unhappy with me and with the Low Municipality ever since. The nearby municipalities of La Peche and all 19 of those within the Pontiac MRC wisely decided also to not implement law Q-2, r.8 and have never done so. Over ten years ago, the Low Municipality used summer students to inspect almost all of its 900 septic tanks. This was inexpensive and yielded about 40 tanks that needed improvements.

The MRCVG has now completed 14 years of its 20-year agreement. Taxpayers have been forced to pay millions of dollars to support this program … unnecessarily. There now exists much evidence to show that the program has been a scandal. The MRCVG has refused to review the program because, if honestly and professionally done, its scandal would be exposed to the public.

The purpose of this document is to educate the reader to the whole situation and to prove objectively that the residents of the MRCVG have been deceived at great cost.

Purpose

Without exception, everyone would agree that we do not want our environment to be polluted. For sure, we do not want rural septic systems to pollute. It is important to ensure that we have well-designed septic systems where there might be a risk of pollution. Note that farm houses formerly used homemade cedar boxes, barrels, and other means for septic waste. These were not equal to today’s standards but nevertheless they did not cause pollution for the most part. The greenest grass on my farm grows over the old cedar septic waste box.

The Quebec government, supported by the MRCVG, has decided that the best way to minimize pollution is to expensively force regular septic tank pumping. Yet, infrequent septic pumping will rarely cause pollution. Pollution is caused by an improper septic system. Forced septic tank pumping is a foolish excuse to inspect septic systems. Why not use this program as an excuse also to inspect home smoke detectors at the same time?

Preventing pollution is an important goal … but there are much cheaper and more efficient ways to do this.

Pumping Frequency and Costs

The Quebec government has never substantiated the frequency requirement to pump septic tanks for permanent residents every two years and for seasonal residents every four years. No analysis or justification exists. It is the most severe pumping enforcement law in all of North America. The MRCVG has never questioned this. Modern rural septic waste systems are designed to function well without frequent pumping. Even the old ones did not require frequent pumping. Ask any farmer.

The MRCVG has reported that there is an average of 2.1 residents per home in its territory. Experienced and informed septic tank users will testify that a 750-gallon septic tank does not have to be emptied at least before ten years. We have two septic tank systems on my farm property and the tanks have been emptied only four times in 35 years. And, we are good for at least another 12 years.

Septic pumping contractors are now charging as much as $250 plus taxes ($287) to empty a tank. For a home with two residents, Q-2, r.8 forces it to pay $1,435 over ten years for this service. This is at least five times as much as required. Considering that there are 6,455 septic tanks in the MRCVG region, this means that residents will pay many millions of dollars unnecessarily over ten years. This is a lot of money to pay by one of the most impoverished regions in Quebec.

Most municipalities are forcing their taxpayers to pay from $80 to $100 each year for two-year pumping on their tax bills. This is misleading and is purposely done to make it look as though pumping is not too expensive. The costs are much higher than that and the additional costs are buried in the general taxes. During the summer, a municipal employee must work full time to administer the program … scheduling, dispute resolution, problem solving, legal matters, contractor management, etc. Time is also required of the DG and of the mayor and councillors. Because significant costs are buried in the general budget, even vacant property owners must pay. There are also many vacant homes within the MRCVG … with owners forced to pay for unused septic systems … that may not even be emptied as part of the program.

Even though Low Municipality does not obey the law, it must pay for the hauling of septic waste from other municipalities to the SWTF. Its share of these annual costs, unfairly, is based on population and not on volume of septic waste transported. So, Low pays more than its fair share.

Note that the MRCVG records that Low Municipality has “never emptied” 337 septic tanks since the inception of their program 14 years ago. This is not correct as many of these tanks have been emptied, such as for mine, but the information has never been available to the MRCVG. There is no evidence to support that any of these septic systems have caused pollution. No related concern has ever been raised at a Low Council meeting. For sure, the owners have saved a lot of money.

Results

I have interviewed employees of several septic pumping companies and also the owner of such a company. Unanimously, they have told me that the program is a waste of taxpayer’s money. They have been hauling mostly dirty water. Two municipalities within the MRCVG have also confirmed to me that mostly only dirty water is being transported. This is a disgrace to taxpayers.

Septic systems are designed for bacteria to act upon the sludge so that its particles are combined with the liquid to be distributed throughout the weeping bed. Over 80% of the original sludge is eliminated from the tank in this manner. The process of bacteria action can be even enhanced by using the “Septi-Boss” product or by using baking yeast mixed with warm water. Other products are also available for this purpose.

One hundred percent of normal septic tanks do not have to be emptied after two years. Using a “sludge judge” (used by contractors), or a simple pole, one can easily prove this. Now I will proceed to use objective calculations to prove my point by using data produced by the MRCVG.

For 2017, the MRCVG reported that 5,078 septic tanks had been emptied. The septic waste was delivered to the SWTF by 1,194 truckloads (that contributed to road damage and to pollution) containing contents totalling 13,402 cubic metres. This was processed by the SWTF initially by dehydration that efficiently removed all of the water thus leaving only solids that had been produced from the 5,078 septic tanks.

The solid product produced for the full 2017 year was reported to be 560 cubic metres. This amounts to 11% of a cubic metre on average that was produced for each septic tank. Only four cubic feet. Four small bucketfuls. This is not surprising to me, but it will shock most people who have been fooled by their politicians. An average septic tank has an area of about 60 square feet. Four cubic feet would be equal to three quarters of an inch of sludge on the bottom of a septic tank. After two years, this is what one what expect to find. There is absolutely no reason to force septic tanks to be emptied every two years. Ninety-six per cent of the contents of a septic truck is dirty water. In 14 years, the MRCVG has caused septic tanks to have been emptied over 60,000 times … 80%, in my opinion, more than necessary.

Law Q-2, r.8 states that a septic tank should be emptied if the sludge exceeds one foot in depth. This is totally contradictory to the law’s requirement to pump septic tanks every two years when the MRCVG’s data confirms that it will take over ten years to accumulate one foot of sludge.

This proves that the lawmakers failed to produce a sensible law Q-2, r.22 and that those MRCs across Quebec that implemented it used no intelligence to question or to review the foolish law. Taxpayers across Quebec have been forced to spend millions and millions of dollars needlessly.

There are a few residents who are comfortable to pay for having their tanks emptied every two years. Whether due to ignorance or not, they are welcome to do this even every year if they wish … as long as such is not forced upon others. I can also prove mathematically that the Quebec regulations for municipal water testing frequency are also not credible and that millions of dollars a year are being wasted.

Program Review

During my visits to the Ministry of Environment in Quebec City, it was confirmed to me each time that there were no plans to review the implementation of law Q-2, r.22. Upon my last visit, I was informed that the Ministry would have liked to review the program but did not have enough money to do so. This is not credible. This would cost a negligible amount compared to the wasted.annual costs of the program across Quebec. The MRCVG has also purposely not performed a review.

Government officials and MRC mayors do not want a review for one reason. They know that such would expose a huge scandal of spending. For them, it is best to continue bashing their taxpayers.

Septic Waste Treatment Facility

The SWTF has always been required. It is being paid for with a loan for $4.5 million being paid for over 20 years. The cost is being shared by all 17 municipalities. It has experienced many operational problems and additional costs. It is not clear as to where the solid output is being distributed. For many years, it had remained piled up on the facility’s property.

Opportunities for major cost savings have been lost. A greatly reduced septic tank pumping frequency would release much processing capacity that could be shared with other nearby MRCs that would help pay for the costs … whether they are compliant with law Q-2, r.8 or not.

Legal Matters

Several years ago, residents in Chelsea took their municipality to court for being unnecessarily forced to replace their old septic system to a modern standard. They won their case. The judge ruled that the municipality could not proceed unless it could prove that the system could not be pumped and that it was causing pollution. This could not be proven.

It also stands to reason that a municipality could not be successful in court if sued because it had forced a resident to pay for a septic tank pumping when it could be proven that the tank did not have to be pumped. Municipal bylaws force residents to remove the earth above their septic tanks to allow access. Is this legal?

There are certainly people in Low, such as me, who would take the municipality to court if they are treated unfairly and foolishly. This might be accomplished cheaply in small claims court. I am amazed that residents in other MRCVG villages have not had the courage to do this.

The Quebec Charter of Human Rights states that: A person’s home is inviolable. No one may enter upon the property of another to take anything therefrom without his express or implied consent. A municipality is not in compliance with this right when it trespasses upon a resident’s property, extracts septic waste and forces the resident to pay for the work … especially when the the tank did not require to be emptied. A municipality must be prepared to pay for expenses related to damaging a resident’s property when such is done by a municipal employee or by a contractor hired by the municipality. For example, a septic tank may collapse when all of its content is removed. Also, a heavy septic truck may break up a paved driveway.

Penalties

Law Q-2, r.8 clearly states that municipalities are responsible for implementation of the law. Municipalities can delegate this responsibility to their MRC if they wish. Law Q-2, r.8 also gives responsibility to municipalities to penalize residents for non-compliance.

MRCVG municipalities have written these penalties into their by-laws. They differ from one to another. Some municipalities do not enforce them. In Kazabazua, one can escape pumping by paying $50 to the municipality, although one must still pay the annual fee on their tax invoice. Chelsea forces a penalty of $400 upon a non-compliant resident. An MRC cannot penalize a municipality for non-compliance because it is then penalizing the municipality’s taxpayers and only the municipality can do this.

As mentioned previously, a resident may take a municipality to court for trespass, for being penalized and for being forced to empty a septic tank needlessly while having to pay for the service.

Corruption

Some people have always thought that the only way that this so obviously flawed program can continue, and continue with refusal to review it, must be due to Quebec corruption. Regardless, MRCVG mayors and councillors, except for most of those in Low, have fully supported this program for fifteen years without question. Same for other MRCs across Quebec.

Alternative Approach

The objective is to mitigate pollution … not to pump septic tanks. Septic systems within a municipality can be categorized into levels of risk for potential pollution. Some have no risk at all such as for the two septic systems on my property.

We are nowhere near to open water and no neighbouring homes are within sight. We have municipal-approved septic systems. Most septic systems would have minimal potential risk. Those septic systems close to open water would have higher potential risk. Note that I use the term “potential” risk, because most systems near open water are not polluting.

Quebec law requires that a septic tank and its septic system be no closer than 100’ to a water well. Does this mean that septic systems that are not closer than 100’ to a river or lake are risky?

Initially, a municipality could use inexpensive summer students to inspect all municipal septic systems. with focus on the potential risk ones. A determination could be made as to when a next inspection would be required for each system. Most would not need to be inspected again before ten years. Focus would be to rectify any few problems discovered and to re-inspect some systems more frequently than every ten years.

Residents should be informed as to how to simply measure sludge/scum in their tanks and how to use cheap products to ensure bacterial action within their tanks.

Perspective/Priorities

The MRCVG collected 13,402 cubic metres of septic waste liquids and solids in 2017. Enough to fill three-Olympic-sized swimming pools. Imagine standing before Niagara Falls for 24 hours. You would see over 300 million cubic metres of water tumble over the falls during this period. This is much less than the raw septic waste that is put into the St. Lawrence River each year by the city of Montreal. All major Canadian cities, including Quebec City, put huge volumes of raw sewage into their waters annually.

In Quebec, there are about 100 towns that currently put raw septic waste directly into their rivers and lakes. Politicians at all levels are responsible for this. Their priorities are backwards. They unnecessarily force taxpayers to spend millions of dollars to control minimal pollution while at the same time allowing major pollution to remain out of control.

Outlook

The MRCVG prefect and mayors will not be happy with this document … they do not want the public to know that so much money continues to be wasted. Municipal staff, who would agree with my writing but who do not want to lose their jobs, are too afraid to speak up. Citizens will be heavily penalized for non-compliance. Septic tank pumping contractors will not speak up … they are making good money.

The Federation of Quebec Municipalities and the Union of Quebec Municipalities also do not want this scandal to be revealed. Their leadership consists of mayors who support the law.

The outlook for change is not good.

Citizens need to demand for the termination of this foolish law. Perhaps the new CAQ government might show leadership to change the law and to help the people it represents. We’ll see.

Steve Connolly is a resident of Low, Quebec

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