What’s up with DEP’s proposed Septic System Rule regarding Nitrogen Pollution?

If you’ve been watching the local press, you’ve seen a lot of articles about proposed changes to Title 5 septic system rules by the MA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). While this debate is far from over, I want to share my perspective with our members and make it clear where the Buzzards Bay Coalition stands on the issue.

First off, some personal perspective.

Two years ago, I moved to Dartmouth and the “septic system” (more like a large cesspool) that I inherited is like yours in one important way: it’s not designed to remove nitrogen pollution. Probably also like yours, our old house has a staggeringly long list of needed repairs. But I’m in a location not likely to see a sewer line extension anytime soon, so upgrading our home to a Nitrogen-Reducing Septic System is on that To-Do List.

I moved to Dartmouth mostly because we love the Slocums River, we love the town’s beaches, we fish its coast and ponds. And from decades of science, I know that nitrogen pollution from septic systems is the leading cause of the pollution that has been degrading our coastal waters. It’s a problem facing all Bay towns, particularly those with a lot of homes on septic systems.

But also like most of you, planning for a significant financing investment in an upgraded septic system is not something I can take lightly. That’s where I’m coming from on a personal level on this, which I’m guessing is pretty similar to most of us living with a septic system.

Now enter the MA Department of Environmental Protection with a proposal to amend its rules regarding Title 5, the state’s septic system code. DEP is currently seeking public comment on their proposal – of which they are getting a lot, which is great. DEP’s engagement on the issue of septic system nitrogen pollution is long overdue and we’ve been advocating for them to act for years to do more to put all Bay communities on a path to cleaning up the nitrogen pollution impacting their waters.

You heard back in December from Korrin Petersen, BBC’s VP Clean Water Advocacy, on the importance of this issue to the Bay in an Op-Ed that was published in a number of the region’s newspapers.

In short, DEP’s proposed regulations lay out two options for towns to adopt to deal with this problem: (1) to develop and implement a 20-year Watershed Management Plan OR, if they choose not to plan, (2) to have all residents upgrade their septic systems in the next five years. I can’t imagine a town that would not choose the planning option. And my guess is that the MA DEP can’t either – they want towns to plan and come up with comprehensive, thoughtful, locally-driven approaches to dealing with the nitrogen pollution in their community.

A lot of the concern I’ve heard raised by local officials around these proposed regulations are focused on the infeasibility of this “upgrade all septics in 5 years” option. We agree with much of that sentiment. In DEP’s desire to create a ‘stick’ to motivate towns, they’ve proposed something that not only puts all of the financial burden on homeowners, but is actually impossible to implement and insufficient to address the problem even if it could be accomplished. Which it can’t. I hope that we’ll see that aspect of the proposal deeply altered in whatever DEP finally implements.

But in the criticism of DEP’s proposal, I hear little about why developing town-driven Watershed Management Plans and spending the next 20 years implementing them to clean up our waters is not a good idea. Under the proposed DEP regulations, all Watershed Management Plans are to be developed at the town level and even must be approved by Town Meeting. It’s not a state ordered plan, it will be local residents working together to come up with the best approach to the problem. That’s how something of this scale and importance should get done, isn’t it?

The Buzzards Bay Coalition believes in comprehensive, locally-driven watershed planning that takes into account specific local assets and needs. The solutions to the nitrogen problem will be different everywhere – sewer extensions are always the best option; there are stormwater runoff solutions to be implemented; tidal inlet management to be considered; and, yes, transitioning more rural areas to modern DeNitrifying Septic Systems will be in there too. The best comprehensive watershed plans will be a mix of approaches, which also make them the most cost-efficient.

So What’s Next?

It’s important to remember that DEP’s proposed regulation are just that – a proposal. They are accepting public comments until January 30 and I expect that the final outcome will be strongly influenced by what they’re hearing.

Like all things political it seems that everyone wants a ‘You for it, or you against it?’ position for everything. Rarely are big problems that simple and DEP won’t be getting such a simple response from the Buzzards Bay Coalition in our comments.

In a nutshell, here’s what the Buzzards Bay Coalition will be telling them:

  • We are opposed to the stick that all septic systems be upgraded to DeNitrifying Technology within five years as unworkable and not the most effective way to reduce nitrogen in all watersheds. It is physically impossible that all homes in septic-dominated places like Westport, South Dartmouth and Bourne be upgraded in five years. DEP has to find another way to support, and require where necessary, the development of locally-driven Watershed Plans.
  • But action is needed and we maintain that a Watershed Plan is the right approach. We support town-based Watershed Management Planning and a 20-year time horizon to implement needed nitrogen pollution reductions. Our coastal waters have suffered for too long. In this we can follow the lead of Bay communities like Westport that are already far along in their development of comprehensive plans (they just now need funding!). BBC stands ready to help and support all towns in developing their plans.

And, last but not least,

  • DEP needs to do a lot more to expand financing assistance to towns and homeowners to implement sewer expansions, septic system upgrades and other nitrogen reduction actions. This is always a core part of BBC’s advocacy on the subject. To that end, we appreciate Senator Mark Montigny and State Representative Chris Markey who drew attention to the need for state funding support in legislation that they filed yesterday in response to DEP’s proposal. The Buzzards Bay Coalition was excited to work with Representative Paul Schmid to pass legislation last summer which already allows homeowners to utilize low-interest town Septic Loan programs for Denitrifying Septic System upgrades. But this is just one tool and much more funding assistance from the state is needed.

If you haven’t been out on the water a lot in the past few years and aren’t aware of the poor state of our coastal waters, you can explore 30 years of water quality data for each harbor, cove and tidal estuary on Buzzards Bay at www.savebuzzardsbay.org/bay-health. We will not restore our waters without action to address nitrogen pollution from septic systems. Let’s use the awareness of the problem that is being generated by DEP’s proposed regulations to come together to cleanup our Bays. It’s not something that we can afford to put off forever.

Mark Rasmussen





Categories: On the Bay, On the Land

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