System failure: Trumbull County family sick - is it septic system?

From the time the Cunninghams moved in, they noticed that their water had a grayish look to it and a “little bit of a weird taste,” Bob said. The ice cubes they made gave off a brownish color.



BAZETTA — Bob Cunningham and his wife, Diana, first came to the attention of people who travel along Bazetta Road in March 2006, when it became obvious that something had gone radically wrong with the new septic system in front of their house.

The system’s sand filter poked roughly three feet out of the ground, producing an odd-looking square, concrete structure unlike anything most people had seen before.

The Cunninghams say it was such an oddity that strangers from all over stopped in their driveway to ask why their system was such a mess, and they would explain.

In subsequent years, sand filters have become commonplace in rural parts of Trumbull County where septic systems are used. They are now standard equipment on most new systems.

After the Cunninghams’ visually unappealing system was featured in a Vindicator story and the health department received numerous calls about it, Trumbull County changed its regulations. The rule now is that no sand filter system is allowed to rise more than roughly one foot out of the ground.

But even after 31‚Ñ2 years, the Cunninghams’ sand filter system was still considered an oddity, and it still caught the eye of passers-by. The new regulation didn’t help them get their problem with the septic tank’s appearance fixed. They needed legal action to do that.

Trumbull County Health Department regulations require a person selling a house with a failed septic system to replace or upgrade that system before the house can be sold, or to put the money in escrow for a new one. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to the seller making arrangements for the cheapest system.

Rex King, owner of septic system installer King Brothers of Bristolville, said the appearance problem with the Cunninghams’ system could have been prevented for $500 at the time it was installed. But the seller was apparently trying to do the job as cheaply as possible, King said.

“The seller picks the easiest way in the world because he’s not living there anymore,” King said, adding his company always talks to the buyer before the installation. “I walk them through the whole process.”

The Cunninghams admit they were not knowledgeable about septic systems when they bought their two-story dream home in early 2006, and they believed their Realtor when he said the septic system would be underground and practically invisible.

Two weeks after they moved in, in March 2006, Diana went by the house and saw the septic tank construction that was going on.

“I was flipping out. It looked like a bomb went off,” she said then.

The couple tried to get problems with the system’s appearance fixed through the contractor, but without success. In 2007, they filed a lawsuit in common pleas court, naming the previous homeowner, Realtors for the buyer and seller and the title company. Their attorney chose not to sue the contractor.

When the suit was settled earlier this year, all parties had been dismissed except the seller and the Cunninghams’ Realtor. Together, those two parties paid about $6,000 to settle the suit, which was enough to have the system moved to the back yard and placed lower in the ground.

This time, the Cunninghams were in control, and they took the time to get bids from several companies before choosing King Brothers, which was not involved in the original system.

But when King Brothers began to remove the old septic system and sand filter from the front yard in mid-October 2009, they found other problems underground.

First, one of the tanks had a hole in it, apparently caused by a rock pushing against the side, Rex King said. Worse, King Brothers discovered that one of the tanks was installed within inches of the Cunningham’s public waterline, when regulations require the septic tank to be at least 10 feet away.

Because the waterline was supposed to be 10 or more feet away, King Brothers didn’t know to watch for it, and their equipment broke it open while digging, Rex King said. King says he doesn’t think the broken tank and the proximity to the waterline would have affected the quality of the Cunninghams’ water.

Still, Bob Cunningham wonders whether the problem could be the reason his family has been so sick during the years they have lived there. From the time the Cunninghams moved in, they noticed that their water had a grayish look to it and a “little bit of a weird taste,” Bob said. The ice cubes they made gave off a brownish color. The Cunninghams decided to buy bottled water, but they still used the water for bathing, hand-washing and other things.

More troubling, Diana gave birth to twin boys 14 months ago, and one of them died a few months later of birth defects.

“It makes you wonder. He’s been sick a lot,” she said of her surviving son.

Dr. James Enyeart, county health commissioner, and Frank Migliozzi, director of environmental health, said Thursday they asked one of their sanitarians to check into the matter as soon as The Vindicator made them aware of it.

Migliozzi said the health department has a drawing that the contractor submitted in January 2006 showing that the waterline was 20 feet from the edge of the septic system. But because public waterlines are underground, the health department has no way of checking to make sure they’re where the contractor says, Migliozzi said.

After a contractor puts the system in the ground but before he covers it up with dirt, a health department inspector checks the installation, Migliozzi said.

The contractor who installed the Cunninghams’ septic system in 2006 is still licensed to install septic systems in Trumbull County, Migliozzi said. A check of files by the health department showed that there have been no written complaints filed with the health department about his work.

Bob Cunningham says he believes his home is now one of the few in Trumbull County that has a new septic system with a sand filter in the back yard. He thinks many people don’t realize it can be done that way because septic installers try to steer a homeowner away from doing so.

Migliozzi agrees, saying most installers prefer to install the system closest to where the waste leaves the house, typically in front or on the side — typically the cheapest way. “When people call and say, ‘I don’t want the system out in front,’ we tell them: ‘You don’t have to,’” Migliozzi said. As long as certain requirements are met, it can go in any part of the yard, he explained.

The Cunninghams’ new system required piping to be extended from the front of his house to the septic tanks in the back and then back to the front, where the clean water from the system empties into the drainage system by the road.

The final touches on restoring their yard to the look they saw four years ago when they bought the house will be complete in the spring, when final grading, seeding and other fine-tuning will be complete.

People have continued to ask about the mess, and they want to know why the Cunninghams left their front yard that way. The answer is that their attorney told them it would be best for legal reasons to leave it intact, if the case went to a jury trial.

In more recent weeks, someone stopped to ask a different sort of question: “Where did that hideous thing go?” Bob said.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.