Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Golden-Brown Rule

I sometimes suggest to my students that, if they want to be sure of jobs in these uncertain times, they should bet on poop.  Death and taxes aren’t the only inevitabilities in life; excrement, too, will always be with us.

I’m not sure that this sales pitch has ever made a convert. Effluent has an image problem that no marketer has been able to solve.

Except, perhaps, in Whatcom County.

Today’s Bellingham Herald featured an article on poop.  “Whatcom County Council Skeptical on Need for Tougher Septic Tank Rules,” says the headline. 

Tougher rules?  What rules?

It turns out that voluntary inspection leads to minimal inspection.  Outside of the Lake Whatcom and Drayton Harbor watersheds, there are no deadlines for septic tank inspection and no penalties for failure to inspect in Whatcom County.  The County does send reminder postcards. So does your dentist, probably.  If householders pitch the postcard, what happens to them?  The same thing that happens if you ignore your dentist's postcards:  nothing.  Your dentist doesn't come after you, and neither will Whatcom County.

This leads to a compliance rate for voluntary septic tank inspection of 22%.  And so, as the Herald notes, “some failing systems continue to operate.”

Read further into the article, and you’ll find this quote from a County employee:  "Quite routinely, we still do find failing systems with straight-line pipes that discharge into roadside ditches."

I don’t know how you react to that sentence.  “Yech” is one natural reaction .  “P.U.!” might be another.

Unless you’re on the Whatcom County Council, apparently.  The next sentence, the very next sentence, states: “Council member Sam Crawford said he has never been convinced that septic system problems are causing health or environmental problems serious enough to warrant the regulatory crackdown.”

Now, I grew up on a farm in upstate New York – and if you aren’t aware that New York exists outside of New York City, plug 2655 Depew Road, Stanley, New York into the satellite portion of Google Maps.  If it looks like any part of Whatcom County, it would be the part north of Badger Road - -not the sin-stained metropolis of Bellingham., much less Manhattan.

Anyway, I grew up in rural New York, and my father and men of his generation had a saying about uppity people that comes to mind.  In its sanitized version, it would go something like this:  “They think their excrement doesn’t stink.”

And perhaps that’s the problem with Whatcom County.  We know that we are special people who live in a special place.  We are people who are so special that, unlike anywhere else on earth, our excrement only makes our special water even more special.

Mr. Crawford did not, of course, make this claim.  He justified his skepticism by pointing out the absence of data demonstrating that rigorous enforcement around Lake Whatcom and Drayton Harbor has resulted in “measurable improvement” in water quality in those waterbodies. 

If you expect to see “measurable improvement” based on septic tank inspection, you would have to have very accurate measurement that excludes inputs of all other sources of, er, nutrients. 

Do we have that?  No.  And I think that the assumption that those data must exist before we take action reflects two problems.  

The first is a variation of the “CSI Effect.”  Prosecutors complain that juries are less likely to get convictions in criminal cases these days (here’s an article on this), because juries have unrealistic expectations about evidence.  Based on TV, they expect that a high-tech machine will match every fiber with a precise garment, every piece of soil with the garden across which the perp had scampered.  All you have to do is put the sample in a machine.  Neon lights glow, and voila!  A computer screen pinpoints the precise result.

Unfortunately, these high tech machines are – I hate to break the bad news – fabrications.  Or very expensive, or not as accurate as the shows would have you believe.  Real life is far messier and more uncertain than TV.  Evidence is far messier and more uncertain than on TV.

I saw a crime show once where two attractive young women with frowns on their faces gathered around a screen.  An adjacent contraption buzzed and whirred, lights flashed across a screen, and then a map appeared.  It showed the precise locations of all pollution sources in a harbor, with all of the pollutants listed.  Frowns gone!  The investigators found the exact location where a body had entered the water, because another of those infallible machines had identified pollutants on the clothing.

Why don't we just buy one of those machines and have it report on septic tanks!  Except that, well, if the machine actually existed, somebody would still have to get all of the data and input it into the machine, and it would have to be kept up to date.  How many tax dollars would that cost?

So problem number one is that, no, we don’t have a high-tech machine that perfectly pinpoints every source of pollution.  We have some monitoring data and we have the known fact that more poop in the water leads to worse water quality.  And we have the known-but-ignored facts that Whatcom County has a large aquifer with some of the worst nitrate pollution in the state, and 77 stream reaches that are impaired, and two harbors restricted for shellfish growing and gathering. . .

Problem number two is the cumulative impact problem.  There are many sources of pollution affecting our water bodies – and many sources of poop.  People, farm animals, deer and geese.  As the children’s book says, “Everybody Poops.”  And so, it’s easy to say “Well, a few leaking septic tanks won’t hurt anything.” 

Nor will a straw break the camel’s back.  Except when it does.  (That’s the significance of the picture up top.)  

Conversely, it is undoubtedly true that inspecting and correcting leaking septic tanks won’t cure all of Whatcom County’s water problems.   To do that, all the various sources will need to be addressed.

So why pick on septic tank owners? 

Remember the Golden-Brown Rule. Do unto your own poop as you would have other do unto theirs.  

Now, bearing in mind the Golden Rule, I do think that we should ensure that low-income householders are not impoverished by having to inspect and, particularly, clean up their septic tanks.  

We need to make this subsidy mindfully, however, rather than simply subsidizing septic tank owners across the board.  That's what we are doing when we turn a blind eye to leaking septic tanks. 

It takes an ounce of inspection to avoid a pound of poop.  And sorry, but I am not, under any circumstances, going to search Google Image for an illustration of this saying.  It probably is vivid enough in your own mind's eye.


  1. Are you folks suffering from coprophobia? "An abnormal and persistent fear of feces (bowel waste). Sufferers of coprophobia experience anxiety ... They go out of their way to avoid coming into contact with feces or sometimes even seeing feces.

    "Coprophobia" is derived from the Greek "kopros" (dung) and "phobos" (fear). Alternate names: Koprophobia, scatophobia.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Well, that wins weirdest comment ever. I'm not sure what point you're making, but if you want to make a point, please use your own name. As John Watts points out below, this isn't a forum for anonymous mudslinging. Or coprolite-slinging.

    2. It seems like a perfectly valid comment to me, asking if you're not over reacting. While coliform in water supplies is to be avoided or prevented you have to realize that we humans have evolved for millennia with all sorts of impurities in the water, including FC. It's one of the reasons we have immune systems.

      Since voluntary septic inspection is not yielding what you consider to be adequate compliance with your personal standards for this issue, you can exercise your first amendment right to convince people to join your religion. This blog is a good first step, and there are other things you can do. It does not have to default to the typical fallback of the illiberal oppressives, which is to demand government mandates to coerce the rest of us into behaving as *you* happen to see fit.

      If that doesn't work, you can raise money to promote your agenda (not government grants by the way; I don't want my tax dollars spent promoting your religion -- simply as a matter of principle -- even if I happen to agree with it).

    3. Thanks, Carl, for identifying yourself. We're going to have to agree to disagree about whether science is a religion. We've known for a very long time that effluent in water is a problem for health and the environment.

      As for grants, one problem that Whatcom County is facing is that the grants that had subsidized the County and its septic tank users are drying up. Cascadia Weekly's "Gristle" has a good discussion of this issue:

    4. There's science with reliably reproducible, falsifiable hypotheses, and then there's "science" that operates on faith, and is used as a bludgeon to force people to tow the party line. The latter is more like religion than science, which is why I chose those words.

    5. It's my considered opinion that sewage treatment is a benefit of civilization. I don't, however, worship sewage treatment plants.

  2. To whom should we credit the discovery of a new word compliments of Wikipedia?
    Maybe another obscure word could be found that describes someone afraid to use their own name on their public comments?
    Another common word -stupid- describes those who don't understand or acknowledge the real threat of fecal coliform and related organisms in public drinking water supplies.
    It is a heckuva lot cheaper-and healthier- to keep this type of pollutant out of our water than to treat it after the fact!
    What is it you don't understand about that common sense?
    Personally, I would rather be accused of being careful -coprophobic in silly pedantic vernacular- than sick because of someone else's galactic stupidity.

  3. Mr. Uppiano, you had me then you lost me.

    If you have some scientific evidence that the presence of FC in community water supplies is innocuous; please come forth.

    In the meantime, your comment about Fecal Coliform reminds me of the cartoon of the two corporate types sitting in the corner office, looking out the window at belching smokestacks. One says to the other, "I've always liked my air with a little bite in it"

    I just posted a comment on GWP regarding Jack Petree's blog; "Jack Petree on the Environment". You should check out Jack's blog, if you haven't already. I hope you are not originally from these parts, it really helps to have a more expansive world view and experience when you are talking about "environment".

    1. If you look back, you'll see that I did not say the presence of FC in community water supplies is innocuous; I said we have a long history of evolution with all sorts of impurities, including FC; most, but not all humans have a tolerance for it.

      In the meantime, the cartoon is fiction, depicting "corporate types" as big rich, fat buffoons, which some may be. You think the cartoonist has an agenda?

      As for my non-expansive world view and lack of experience, I posted with my real name, so you can research where I'm from, or what I do or don't know. I am solely responsible for my content.

  4. Thought y'all might enjoy this:

    Factors influencing water quality

    Water quality is greatly influenced by human activities, but other seemingly subtle biological activities also have great significance. Lake Washington is an interesting example of how human influences and biological processes can alter water quality.
    The lake received increasing amounts of secondary treated sewage between 1941 and 1963, which resulted in eutrophication and declined water quality of the lake. Planktonic algae was dominated by blue-green bacteria (algae) from 1955 to 1973.
    The late Dr. W.T. Edmondson, former professor of zoology (external link) at the University of Washington, (external link) studied the biology and chemistry of Lake Washington for many decades. The 1955 discovery of the cyanobacteria Oscillatoria rubescens (formerly called a blue-green alga) in the lake, by oceanographer George Anderson, led to further research and predictions that nutrient conditions would soon be stimulating nuisance algal conditions, as had been documented in Lake Zurich in Switzerland.

    Unlike algae, which assails the eyes and the nose, some factors of water quality are invisible and can be measured only in the laboratory. Dr. Edmondson's studies implicated phosphorus from sewage as being the element from treatment-plant effluent that fertilized algae in Lake Washington. Phosphorus was found in concentrations of 70 parts per billion in the 1960s. That was enough to feed the significant growth of algae that darkened the water and washed ashore to rot and smell. This finding had major implications for industry, and great political discussion resulted.

    It's MR. Sewage to you!

  5. Selecting Anonymous was the right choice, given the insult-laden and hubristic response of Watts who was quick to hurl terms like "stupid" and "galactic stupidity" at a critic.

    The "poop" theme is juvenile and simplistic, and it has a phobic tone. Attempts at wit, like “The very essence of freedom is the right to drink excrement” (in the “Wet and Wild” post) are clumsy bludgeons. This blog could do better than operate in exaggerate-and-attack mode. If the goal is to inflame and polarize appealing to the lowest common denominator (potty humor), bravo.

    1. No more insult-laden and hubristic insults under the mantle of anonymity, please. It's cowardly. And you added nothing of substance to the discussion.

      If you don't like the blog, of course you are excused from reading it. And, as we always used to say to Jack Petree, you can always start your own blog! Jack, to his credit, did so.

      And he has invited anonymous comments over on his blog, so that's a more comfortable alternative for you. The Herald politics blog is another good place for you to vent.

      Those of you who want to defend leaking septic tanks under your own names, like Mr. Uppiano, are welcome. Those who want to insult me anonymously are not. Hope that's clear.

      I do accept anonymous compliments, like the several "Bravos" under the last blog. I'm only human, after all.

  6. Mr. Uppiano,

    You are obviously a man of high personal attainment and eclectic taste; documented in great detail online. Good for you.

    But since you have mentioned religion in the context of this discussion, I would offer some advice from Scripture. "When thine doest alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee".

    As far as "corporate types" are concerned, we lack good corporate perspective in this County.

    Quick--name someone on County Council, County Planning or Bellingham Council that works for a corporation.

    The only ones I can think of are Bellingham Councilmember Gene Knutson and John Lesow. So--far be it from me to hurl brickbats at corporations.

    I know, from personal experience, that any conservative corporate employee is looked upon by some with suspicion. In some cases, derision. That "agenda" thing.

    You learn to run with that occasional attitude. It goes with the territory.

    And I thought the cartoon was funny.

  7. People who post things without using their real names should be ashamed of themselves.



  8. Mr. Nerd, sir, are you taunting me and my "no anonymous comments" rule?

    I suppose that an alternative might be that we all take "Mr." names, like the Mr. Men characters. Mr. Nerd. Mr. Sewage. Mr. Sailor36. Mr. OutsideMan. Ms. Poop-phobic Pottymouth (that would be me).

  9. I was glad to see my neighbor, AReber, posting on the Herald Politics Blog re septic inspections.

    Just an observation--over the years there have been a select few that post under their real names on the Herald blog; to wit:

    Dan Pike
    Jean Melious
    Dan Warner
    Wendy Harris
    Mike Lilliquist
    Dave Stalheim

    I may have left out a few Stand-Up Posters, but not many.

    The remaining glut of opinionated folks are Pseudonymers...

    The aforementioned Up Front Real Name Commenters have a lot more to offer in terms of constructive opinion than the backwash from anonymous bloggers; who seem to be enchanted by the sight of their own words......

    1. John, I hate ananiymous posters. They are allowed here because some people won't comment otherwise. As long as the comment isn't offensive, then it can stand.

      I'd also add to your list of real names both of the Petree's and now Dave Onkles. Also Sam Crawford.

    2. David and I are sending mixed messages. I'm done with anonymous posters, except those who say nice things. The rest are a time suck. And life is too short to put up with gratuitous unpleasantness.

      I've posted my blog moderation policy in the sidebar.

  10. Mr. Uppiano suggests that we've adapted to coexist with fecal coliform. Here's a nice concise explanation of the scientific basis for using fecal coliform as a basis for measurement. It points out that, if anything, fecal coliform is evolving to deal with us (rather than vice versa):

    "Fecal bacteria are present in the intestinal tract and feces of warm-blooded animals, some of which can cause diseases in humans, such as cholera and dysentery when spread as waterborne pathogen originating in sewage from infected humans (Craun, 1986). Because fecal coliforms can be readily detected in water samples and are present in untreated human sewage, their presence in samples of surface water is considered an indicator of the potential presence of other pathogenic bacteria species that can occur in human sewage and are not easily detected. Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a major component of the fecal coliform bacteria group and typically are harmless to humans. In recent years however, several atypical strains of E. coli have been identified that are linked to a variety of diseases in humans, most notable being the strain E. coli (O157:H7) that cause hemorrhagic colitis (Nataro and Kaper, 1998). Cattle have been shown to be a reservoir for E. coli O157:H7 (Hancock and others, 1994; Hussein and Sakuma, 2005) and while most recorded outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 infections have resulted from consumption of contaminated food products or contact with farm animals, manure handling and contact with contaminated surface waters are considered potential routes of E. coli O157:H7 infection in humans (Petridis and others, 2002)."