Ecosystem News

A pinched-nose look at leftover Athens’ septic tanks

An Athens’ septic tank. Photo by Alexander Card


By CG Science Staff Writer Alexander Card

Athens residents may be unaware of a potential environmental threat buried in their own backyards.  An unknown number of aging septic systems are buried near Athens homes; creating the opportunity for long-term environmental damage.

Research shows that underground septic systems can cause damage to the local ecosystem, particularly to nearby water sources.  A properly placed and prepared modern septic system has little chance of doing harm to the environment. However, the majority of septic systems in Athens were installed before the 1950’s during a time when little was known about ecological conservation.

Prior to the installation of the Athens Waste Water Treatment Plant in 1952, households were connected either to the municipal sewer system or a personal septic system.  According to the U.S. Census, over 2000 houses were built in Athens before the 1950’s, most of which stood outside of the sewer systems operational boundaries.

“All of our sewers before the ’50’s flowed out into the [Hocking] river,” said Scott Lambert, foreman of the Athens sewer system.

The Hocking River. Photo by Alexander Card.

After the installation of Athens’ waste water treatment plant, it became a requirement to connect to the sewers if possible.  In order to make the system more accessible, the sewers were expanded in 1964 according to the Athens Department of Engineering and Public Works.

Many citizens who had previously used septic systems were forced to abandon them, usually just leaving them buried in their yards.  The Athens Department of Engineering and Public Works does not keep any records regarding how many septic systems are, or were ever installed.

“Individuals are responsible for their septic systems, not the city,” said Lambert.

Lambert also stated that most individuals are not even aware that they have them.  The Athens Department of Engineering and Public Works claims to only have come across two septic systems in the last 8 years, both of which were uncovered on accident.

“Removing a septic tank is extremely expensive,” said Lambert.  “When and if they’re found, we tend to just fill them with gravel and leave them in place.”

Athens’ Department of Public Works. Photo by Alexander Card.

The problem, however, lies with the undiscovered and therefore unfilled septic systems.  A number of chemical reactions occur within both active and unfilled inactive septic tanks including fermentation.  This ultimately results in the production of toxic gases, such as methane and ammonia, and the creation of soluble phosphates.

Ammonia and phosphates, as well as other septic compounds, cause a process known as eutrophication when the chemicals are introduced to the environment in large amounts.  Eutrophication is basically the overgrowth of certain plant life in freshwater and marine ecosystems, although it also occurs on land.

When eutrophication occurs in water due to the leakage of sewage and its related chemicals, the amount of phytoplankton and certain other plant life in the ecosystem increases.  This “algal bloom” can lead to a lack of oxygen in the water; causing ill effects on other aquatic life.

On land, eutrophication has similar effects; causing overgrowth in certain plant life. Wild grasses, nettles, and brambles may be most affected; turning clear forest floors and meadows into tangled thickets, and suffocating other nearby plant species.

All septic systems are built with an adjacent drainage field, which is basically a small section of land where liquid waste drains from the tank component.  When the gases and other compounds leak out into these drainage fields, they can cause  problems to the surrounding environment and give off a strong stench.

Methane,for instance, is a gas necessary for the greenhouse effect to occur.  Methane levels in Earth’s atmosphere have more than doubled over the last decade. Septic tanks certainly are not the sole cause of  methane in the atmosphere though.

With no known count of remaining septic systems hidden in and around Athens; it may be worrying to Athens residents to consider the possibility of a chemical cesspool buried in their own backyards.

If you believe a discarded septic tank is buried somewhere on your property and is causing problems, contact Athens Public Works at 740-593-7636 for more information.

For more information on septic tanks click here.