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ORGANIZED SLIME: The Great Septic Rip-off of the 21st Century

I'm putting on a slightly different hat here. Six years ago I wrote a book on septic systems (Septic Systems Owners' Manual). Since then, major developments have been going on with septic systems and, as a result, we are now revising the book. I'm also writing a magazine article for Mother Earth News on the corruption and scams that characterize the current design and implementation of septic systems in North America. I'm still working on the article, but I'm publishing this in advance to get the word out on this rip-off of homeowners (and taxpayers). Following is part of an early draft of the magazine article:

A hoax of tremendous proportions, and consequent rip-off of homeowners with septic systems is now under way in America. It has been perpetrated by:
-Health regulators
-Land development interests
-No-growth advocates
-Misled Environmentalists

The crowning glory of this planning (at least in California) is Assembly Bill 885, now (as I write this) bouncing around in the California legislature like a loaded cannonball. If enacted, it would apply onsite wastewater standards state-wide. The trouble is, it's a bloated plan, crafted by engineers who stand to make millions, if not billions - I kid you not! - of dollars from forcing home owners to install what are in most cases unnecessary high-tech systems, costing $30-50,000.

I'm addressing this disturbing tale to homeowners with septic tanks (septic systems). If you haven't yet been told by regulators you need to upgrade your septic system, you will. It's just around the corner. It's a movement that generates cash for engineers, regulators, and special interests, and it's accelerating.

Who am I to be telling this tale? I am NOT an engineer. In fact, after 15 years studying septic systems, I do not trust engineers (of the wastewater variety) one whit. I have seen scam after scam being perpetrated on towns, as well as individuals by self-serving engineers and their accomplices. We'll get back to this in more detail.

I am a layman and I believe in the value of common sense. I have built three houses, built one septic system by hand (in Big Sur, Calif.), and I spent about 8 years studying septic systems and interviewing about a dozen of what I considered the most intelligent wastewater experts in the country. I then edited and published the Septic Systems Owners Manual in 2000. In addition I served for 2 years as the homeowners' representative on the Marin County (Calif.) Septic System Technical Advisory Committee.

Homeowners With Septic Tanks Be Forewarned

There are two ways that you, the homeowner, will run across this scam:

As An Individual
Either your system fails, or you build an addition, or some bureaucratic requirement of some sort means you have to hire an engineer who will design an expensive (where I live now $30,000+) system requiring a huge mound, pumps, and electricity in lieu of a simple gravity-powered septic system which, in many, if not most of these cases, would work fine.
First and foremost, brother and sister homeowners, stay out of the hands of county health inspectors. Get a permit to fix a failed leachfield? No way José. You're just asking for trouble. Find out how to fix it right* and do it yourself. (You did not hear this from me.)

As a Small Town
It's exactly the same in one small town after another (nationwide):
-Engineers announce that septic systems in your town are polluting groundwater (or a lake, river, the ocean, etc.). Typically there is no verification that the pathogens are human , rather than animal.
-By the time you find out about it, a plan is under way. The engineers have coordinated this with health officials and often local politicians and selected townspeople.
-You will be threatened with various measures if you oppose the plan (no future building, no remodels, or worse, condemnation).
-Grant money is available.
-The old tried-and-true gravity septic systems will seldom be used.
-It will somehow end up costing $20-50,000 per house.
-There will big fees to engineers and the local health regulating agency.


Sol Fest Solar Energy Festival Has Become An EVENT/Skateboard Crash/David Grisman/Godfrey Stephens Carving/The Old and New Mini

This takes place every August on the Real Goods store/homestead/school/solar center in Hopland, California (about 2 hours north of San Francisco). The main theme is "alternative energy," i.e. using the sun, wind, water and other natural forces to produce heat and energy. The other major subject is "green building," i.e. straw-bale, cob, adobe, bamboo, and the like for construction. We set up a Shelter booth and sold books. The event has really jelled in the past few years; last year it was great; this year it was super. There were over a hundred booths, and good will and a healthy spirit in the air. Word has got out about this event. All manner of solar brilliance. Cooking with hydrogen, windmills of old and new design. Water generating wheels. Natural clothing,beautiful European grain grinders, solar-roasted coffee, builders' books, all kinds of food, organic beer on tap, wine tasting, people were having fun! Plus, good music. David Grisman and friends played a great set onSaturday, the crowd kept them there an hour and a half, boogie-city. On Sunday the young bluegrass band Hot Buttered Rum had the big tent rockin and rollin. A lot of people were dressed to the T; all kinds of costumes, from practical to outrageous. Good vibes, mon. Real Goods staff and volunteers had the thing organized tightly, a difficult job with this level of activity.

Solar-roasted coffee beans by brothers David and Mike Hartkop. The power of the sun. People just loved this, it was witty, and it worked! A film crew from Bulgaria filmed it. As I write this I'm having a cup of latte I just made with their beans and for once I got the foam frothy enough. www.solarroast.com

James Brown watches over the Thanksgiving Coffee Company booth

David Grisman and his blue grass buddies connected strongly with the crowd.

We sold a ton of Home Work books. Something seems to have happened, at least in these circles, and we were swamped. In the two days about 100 people (no kidding!) told us how they've been inspired by Shelter, and now Home Work. A 4-year old said, "Mom, I want this book." A 30s-year-old pointed to Shelter and said, "That book's been around all my life." Maya Jamal picked up Home Work and said, "Of all the books in the world, this is my favorite book." I was stunned by all this. It's a wonderful feeling, to connect.

Maya and her favorite book

Skateboard Crash of the Week, Deer Liver and Red Wine With Lou

I took off for points north on Friday. Lew was going to set up the booth, so I went up to see my friend Louie Frazier on Friday, and would then drive to Hopland Saturday morning. I took off about 4AM and headed up north on the coast, with a double shot of homemade espresso. I love this 3-hour drive. Beaches, cliffs, farmland, sheep.

I always start out early on this trip so I can get to Sea Ranch just after dawn. Sea Ranch is an exclusive and extensive community on the coast north of Ft. Ross. It has miles and miles of well-paved downhill pavement. It also has security guards who don't take kindly to trespassing skateboarders cruising the private roads, so my m.o.is to get there early, park my truck near a house that isn't occupied, and skate. I found a hill that was steep in the middle; on my first run I started halfway down it, it went well, so I came back and went to the top, and took off. I got to the steep part, started accelerating fast and — there comes that moment where you have to make a decision: jump off while you still can, or go for it. I went for it. At the bottom I had to make a 90 degree left turn, came into it too fast, and crashed into the bank shoulder first, reinjuring a shoulder that had just about healed. I know, I know…
Got back on the road and lo and behold just south of Gulala was a freshly-killed faun on the highway. The very best of road kill. I picked it up, went on to Pt. Arena. Louie and I hung the deer up in a tree by the river and I skinned and cleaned it, washed it in the river, and packed it in ice for me to take home. For lunch Louie fried the liver, heart, and kidneys with onions, which we had with Louie's homemade Zinfandel and slices of bread. Deer liver is an amazing food, way different from beef liver. This is real meat, not feedlot grain-fed anti-biotic'd beef. It connects you with wildness, opens a window back into our hunting/gathering past.

Deer liver, onions, herbs, sauteed in olive oil

After lunch both of us old guys took a nap. Then I took a swim in the river. Is this living or what?

The hometown bakery in Pt. Arena, Calif. has unique baked goods.

In Search Of Adventure 2006 and Richard Halliburton

When I was about 12, my favorite book was Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels. Halliburton was a young explorer who criss-crossed the world in search of adventure. He swam through the Panama Canal, visited Petra, the city carved out of solid rock in The Dead Sea; he climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan and Popocatapetl in Mexico; got into forbidden Tibet and wrote about it all as if he was taking you, the reader along. My favorite: in India on a warm full moon night, he snuck past the sentry at the Taj Mahal, lowered himself into the reflecting pool and "…swam among the lotus blooms."
Seeking adventure doesn't have to be of the monumental variety. I thought of Halliburton yesterday: it was hot, and I walked down a local canyon to a creek. I found a pool, stripped, and got underwater. Simple. Immersed in the forces of the mountain. I look for adventure every day. Collecting mushrooms. Running on the beach. Skateboarding. Surfing. Paddling. A short bike ride. Going down a road not travelled before. Getting off the trails. You can do it anywhere; for example when you run in Central Park in NYC, you don't have to stay on the paths or roads, but can cut through meadows and fields and climb rocks. Wherever you are, you can look for something that's out of the daily-grind loop, that's different and fun and exciting.

A Couple of Random Photos

The old Mini and the new Mini

Mask carved by Godfrey Stephens