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Water: Class V Wells

Large-Capacity Cesspools

This page will help you determine if you have a large-capacity cesspool, understand why these cesspools are banned, learn how to properly close your large-capacity cesspool, and find alternative ways to dispose of your sanitary waste.

Who should read this page?
What is a cesspool?
What is a large-capacity cesspool?
What is not a large-capacity cesspool?
Why has EPA banned large-capacity cesspools?
What are the requirements for closing large-capacity cesspools?
What are my options after I close my cesspool?

Definitions

A well or injection well is a bored, drilled, or driven shaft, or a dug hole, whose depth is greater than its largest surface dimension; an improved sinkhole; or a subsurface fluid distribution system used to discharge fluids underground (40 CFR 144.3).

 

A Class V well is typically a shallow on-site disposal system used to place various non-hazardous fluids below the land surface (40 CFR 144.80).

 

Sanitary waste is liquid or solid waste originating solely from humans and human activities. This category includes waste collected from toilets, showers, wash basins, sinks used for cleaning domestic areas, sinks used for food preparation, clothes washing operations, and sinks or washing machines where food and beverage-serving dishes, glasses, and utensils are cleaned (40 CFR 144.3).

For additional definitions, see the Glossary.

Who should read this page?

If you use a cesspool as your on-site waste disposal system and you live in or operate a facility with bathrooms and kitchens that serves more than 20 persons per day, you may be affected by the ban on large-capacity cesspools. The following types of facilities may use large-capacity cesspools:

  • Multi-family residential units
  • Churches, schools, and public meeting facilities
  • Office buildings
  • Industrial and commercial buildings
  • Shopping malls
  • Hotels and restaurants
  • Highway rest areas
  • State parks and campgrounds
  • Train and bus stations

What is a cesspool?

A cesspool is a shallow system for disposing of sanitary waste. Although structures vary, most cesspools consist of a concrete cylinder with an open bottom or perforated sides. Sanitary waste from toilets, sinks, and washing machines enters the cesspool and percolates out the bottom. The picture below shows the design of a typical cesspool.

What is a large-capacity cesspool?

EPA defines large-capacity cesspools as:

  • Residential multiple-dwelling, community, or regional systems (e.g., townhouse complexes or apartment buildings) that dispose of sanitary waste, or
  • Non-residential cesspools that have the capacity to serve 20 or more persons per day (e.g., rest areas or churches) if they receive solely sanitary waste.

The definition of “large-capacity” may vary from state to state. For example, some states define large-capacity cesspools based on the amount of waste or the volume capacity of the cesspool. Check with your permitting authority for more information.

EPA does not regulate the cesspools of single family homes or those of non-residential facilities that serve fewer than 20 persons per day and dispose of solely sanitary waste. However, these smaller cesspools may be regulated by state and local governmental agencies (e.g., departments of health).

Cesspools of any size that receive waste other than sanitary waste (e.g., from commercial or industrial processes) are industrial wells and are subject to regulations. See the Regulations page for more information.

Answer the following questions to determine if you have a large-capacity cesspool.

 

Questions:

If Your Answer Is Yes

If Your Answer Is No

Residential Properties    

1. Do you own or operate a multiple-family home (duplex, townhouse complex, apartment building, or cluster development)?

Go to question 3.

Go to question 2.

Non-Residential Properties    

2. Does your building have bathroom facilities with the capacity to serve 20 persons per day?

Go to question 3.

You are not affected by the rule. Stop here.

3. Are your bathroom facilities connected to a municipal sewer?

You are not affected by the rule. Stop here.

Go to question 4.

4. Do your bathroom facilities drain to a holding tank, and is the waste in the holding tank disposed of off-site?

You are not affected by the rule. Stop here.

Go to question 5.

5. Do your bathroom facilities drain to a septic system (that is, a septic tank with a leach field) or package plant? (See note below)

You are not affected by the rule. Stop here.

You may be disposing your sanitary wastes into alarge-capacity cesspool.

Note: If you are not sure where your wastewater goes, use dye or smoke tests to help locate the discharge points from your bathrooms and kitchens. Your local health department, a plumber, or licensed septic tank pumper may be able to help you determine where your sanitary waste goes.

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What is not a large-capacity cesspool?

Onsite waste disposal systems that have a buried tank, an effluent (wastewater) distribution system, and a soil absorption area and receive solely sanitary waste are considered to be septic systems. Large-capacity septic systems are regulated by EPA. See the Large-Capacity Septic Systems page to find out if you have one and to learn how to meet the requirements for these systems.

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Why has EPA banned large-capacity cesspools?

EPA has banned large-capacity cesspools because untreated sanitary waste from cesspools can enter ground water and contaminate drinking water sources. This is a concern because:

  • Cesspools are not designed to treat sanitary waste
  • Cesspool wastewaters often have higher levels of nitrates and coliform bacteria than are allowed in drinking water
  • The wastewater may contain other pollutants such as phosphates, chlorides, grease, viruses, and chemicals used to clean cesspools and
  • Areas of the country that rely on cesspools are more likely to rely on ground water for their drinking water supplies. (Contaminants from cesspools could flow into this ground water.)

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What are the requirements for closing large-capacity cesspools?

EPA banned new large-capacity cesspools on April 5, 2000. Since that date, no new large-capacity cesspools may be constructed.

A ban on existing large-capacity cesspools went into effect on April 5, 2005. If you have not yet closed your large-capacity cesspool, you must do so immediately. EPA’s regulations require you to close your large-capacity cesspool in a way that ensures no contaminants could move from it to underground drinking water sources.

Contact your permitting authority to find out if there are any additional requirements you must meet. In closing your large-capacity cesspool, you must do the following:

  • Write to your permitting authority at least 30 days before you close the large-capacity cesspool.
  • Contact the authority and ask what information you must provide. You may be asked to fill out a pre-closure notification form (2 pp, 23K, About PDF) or inventory form (3 pp, 143K, About PDF) or to write a letter saying that you plan to close the cesspool.
  • Permanently plug or otherwise close the cesspool in a way that is approved by the permitting authority and that ensures ground water is protected.
  • Dispose of or manage any soil, gravel, sludge, liquids, or other materials removed from your cesspool or the area around your cesspool according to all federal, state, and local requirements. Your permitting authority should have information about specific requirements in your state.

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What are my options after I close my cesspool?

Some disposal alternatives to large-capacity cesspools are shown below:

  • Sanitary Sewer Hookup. Contact your local sewer authority about the possibility of connecting your home or building to the sewer system. Often, a sewer system hookup may be available even though it was not an option when your home or building was constructed. Because municipal wastes are treated and disposed of properly, sewer hookup is the best option for you and the environment. However, it may be an expensive option.
  • Holding Tanks. Store the sanitary waste in a holding tank, which is then periodically pumped out for proper disposal of the waste. You can reduce the amount of wastewater that has to be stored by conserving water (e.g., using low-flow shower heads and low-flow toilets).
  • Large-Capacity Septic Systems. Contact your permitting authority about the requirements for installing a large-capacity septic system (that is, a septic tank with one or more leach fields). Large-capacity septic systems provide some wastewater treatment. Note that large-capacity septic systems are regulated as Class V wells, and you must contact your permitting authority prior to constructing one. Visit the Large-Capacity Septic System page for more information.
  • Package Plants. Small wastewater treatment systems, known as package plants, are designed to treat limited sewage flow. These plants use prefabricated steel tanks and hold the wastewater for a longer time as part of the treatment process. You must get permission to build and run a package plant. Your permitting authority can refer you to the appropriate state or local agency. In addition, you may be required to remove certain contaminants from the waste before discharging the treated waste into the environment.

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