Property owners frustrated with Erie County’s septic inspection program

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Erie County Health Department has started to inspect septic tanks again, but only for those on public water.

Some rural Erie County residents are frustrated with the Erie County Health Department, which has a backlog of septic tank inspections, forcing each property seller to drop thousands of dollars in escrow.

Recently, the Erie County Health Department, which has at least 10 inspectors who jobs are to test the septic tanks, reinstated septic tank inspections for homes on public water.

The county has more than 500 inspections backlogged in their system.

But the department does not have a plan for those not on public water.

That means folks such as Paul Rowe and Robb Miller had to reach into their own wallets to pay private inspectors to test the septic tanks and waited. Their money – a total of $27,000 – has been locked in escrow for more than six months. WIVB already featured Miller’s plight in a news story two weeks ago.

Anyone who could not get their septic tanks inspected prior to closing most likely had to put thousands of dollars in escrow, where the money remains out of reach until the work is completed.

The county suspends septic tank inspections in the winter because of frozen ground even though the ground is not always frozen when they stop, a Realtor told WIVB. But when the coronavirus struck home in March, the county suspended the inspections over concerns about entering homes for the tests.

“We are developing a plan for properties that are on private water systems because that entails going into the house,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County’s health commissioner.

“We have to figure out how we’re going to work that, again, looking as the community resources. If people are able to get a private inspector to do the work for them, then we really welcome that.”

The problem with that option is it will cost upwards of $700 for a private inspection, while the county only reimburses $150.

Lewis finally gave up last week, borrowed money and paid for a private inspector to complete the work. His septic tank passed inspection last week.

“It’s maddening,” Miller said during a Zoom interview from his new home and business in Chaffee, where he runs Blue Hill Pet Grooming and Resort.

Rowe said he will likely go the private inspector route, as well.

“The only reason why I think it would be unfair is: is the county upfront?” Rowe said.

“If they realized they had a problem, and they realized they were so backlogged, and they realized the fact that they could only do X amount of inspections before winter hit, you’d think they would have put some form of mitigation in place to take care of that, and they didn’t do a thing about it. There was no proactive solution to do anything about it .”

Where did the directive come from to halt septic inspections due to the coronavirus? It’s a question proved hard to answer.

For instance, Niagara County never suspended their inspections. But Chautauqua County did.

“We’re doing the best we can given the circumstances,” said Mark Stow, Chautauqua County’s director of environmental health in an email.

“PPE is in short supply and reserved for Covid testing.  It definitely helps if they are on public water.  We also have suspended other face to face in home inspections as well as on-site inspections of restaurants and other indoor permitted facilities as directed by the New York State Department of Health.”

Stow said the state provided guidance to suspend septic inspections. Erie County health officials said they got emails from the state that they interpreted to mean the septic inspections are not essential work.

But the state health department told News 4 Investigates that such guidance did not come from them.

Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo said he asked for the emails, but was ignored.

“I said okay, provide me those emails, let’s see those emails that say that our sanitarians can’t go out and perform these inspections,” Lorigo said.

“Well, that was over two weeks ago and I’ve yet to see any emails, or any further correspondence on it whatsoever, which leads me to believe that those emails don’t exist. To me, understanding the process of what happens, it makes no sense that we can’t send people out to a rural part of the community to perform these inspections. You don’t have to deal with anybody really that directly, you can certainly wear your mask and protective equipment, hand them the dye kit to put in the toilet and let them do it themselves but for whatever reason, the administration does not seem to care about these people out in the rural parts of Erie County.”

Burstein said the county health department is considering a plan for those people like Rowe and Miller, who are not on public water.

“We have not finalized that plan yet,” said Burstein, Erie County’s health commissioner.

“Actually 75% of the inspections that we have pending meet our criteria that are on public water, and they have systems on file, so really most of the properties that are in the queue are able to go through this mechanism. So, we’re figuring out what we can do to help those other properties and we will figure it out, we figure out other tough problems in the past.”

Regardless, any plan the county develops will be too late for Miller and Rowe, unless the county decides to reimburse those who paid for private inspections. Lorigo said the county absolutely should reimburse anyone who had to take that route.

Rowe said he already had to wait on the county in August when he closed, but they never scheduled his inspection before shutting down for the winter last season.

“I heard from my lawyer that they would no longer be doing testing and then we’d have to wait until the subsequent year,” Rowe said.

“Too busy. They were backlogged then as well is my understanding.” 

If anything were to go wrong with the septic tanks at either of their former homes of Rowe or Miller, they’d be responsible for repairs, even though they have not lived in those home for over a half a year.

Rowe said he is not in the financial dire straits that Miller is in with his business forced to close as being non-essential in a health pandemic. Both Rowe and his wife still have jobs they can do at home. But he has other bills coming that make him believe he needs that escrow money sooner rather than later.

“My mother just went on Medicaid,” Rowe said.

“I have a bill that’s come due from the nursing home this month, which is pretty substantial.  I’ve got college bills for my son’s college at UB for summer courses which are coming due. I got $10,000 in bills basically coming due in the month of May. It’s not a big deal, like I said, I can cover those, but it’s just the frustration that I have to put that on a credit card, or something of that nature while I wait for this money to come in and pay that interest. It’s just a frustration more than anything at this point.”

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