U.S. Water News Online
JACKSON, Miss. -- The Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled
that a local sewer district can issue rules for operation and
maintenance of septic tanks as long as there is no conflict with
state Department of Health regulations.
However, the Supreme Court kicked the case back to Rankin County
Chancery Court to determine if any conflict between local and state
The case involved the city of Richland and 123 residents of the
Cleary Water, Sewer and Fire District in southwest Rankin County.
The residents and the city claimed the Cleary district is trying
to regulate septic tanks within its geographic area when the Health
Department has had such authority for decades.
In 2003, a judge ruled for the Clearly district. Last year, the
state Court of Appeals upheld the judge's ruling. The city and
residents appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Cleary district was created in 1980. The Legislature gave it
general powers to adopt ordinances on public health issues.
By 2000, state health and environmental officials were concerned
about raw sewage being discharged from individual onsite wastewater
treatment systems, commonly known as septic tanks. At their urging,
the district in 2001 enacted an ordinance regulating septic tanks and
requiring customers to have them inspected and fixed if necessary.
In a 2002 lawsuit, the residents and Richland officials argued the
district had no authority to regulate septic tanks or to turn off
water service to residents who refused to comply.
According to court documents, the Department of Health said the
ordinance did not infringe on its long-standing regulatory authority
over septic tanks.
The district argued it was required to protect the general health
of residents. It said the ordinance was enacted merely as a safety
precaution to prevent the discharge of untreated waste water into the
surface and groundwater it supplied.
Justice James E. Graves, writing for the Supreme Court, said there
also is a question of whether the Cleary district can require
property owners to install septic tanks the district approves, deed
the disposal system to the district and allow the district to charge
customers for maintenance of the system.
The Appeals Court, in its ruling, said the ordinance was a valid
exercise of the district's authority to protect the public health.
The court said the Legislature passed the Mississippi Individual
OnSite Wastewater Disposal System Law to ensure that septic tanks
were properly designed, constructed, operated and maintained. The law
also allows cities and counties to enact more restrictive local rules
if they want.
Graves said the Supreme Court agreed state law gives broad "police
powers" to local governmental bodies to protect the public health.
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