Marion Residents Preview Septic Proposal

Title 5-compliant septic systems were not designed to protect the water from the release of nitrogen, a long-standing problem intensified by the SouthCoast’s sandy waters. Thusly, the Marion Board of Health has offered a sneak peek into its impending proposal for a new regulation-making mandatory a nitrogen-reducing technology in any new septic installation at what has been described as a “tiny percentage (increase) to the overall cost.”

            This would pertain to any new construction and to any failed system at the point of sale of an existing construction. No other septic systems will be subject to this regulation.

            Septic systems are one of five major contributors to nitrogen in the water, along with wastewater treatment plants, cranberry bogs, fertilizer, and vehicle exhaust emissions, according to a May 16 informational webinar held via Zoom video conference.

            Cape Cod-based, alternative septic systems expert George Heufelder was a guest presenter in the webinar, explaining the new system and taking questions in hopes of getting the public on board with a program billed as the town’s first to address the future of the inner harbors.

            “The increase in nitrogen reduces the oxygen available for life,” said Dot Brown of the Marion Health Department, noting that since 1991 the town’s inner harbors have not improved in this regard. Nitrogen, says Brown, has been increasing over that time span.

            According to the presentation, the currently required Title 5-compliant septic systems remove 25 percent of the nitrogen in water; Heufelder says data coming in from communities using the new technology supports the potential removal of 60 to 70 percent of nitrogen.

            “Alternative septic systems are science. They’re not rocket science; they’re science,” said Heufelder, alluding to a potential windfall of installation opportunities for engineers, sanitarians, and people who are interested in wastewater to be on the ground floor of an innovation. “We’ve been dumping (wastewater) in the ground and a bunch of sand and hoping it’d do the job for eons. It’s just not doing the job because so many are doing it.”

            Marion residents will have the opportunity to vote on whether to accept the proposal. A public hearing will be held on the matter on June 16, with town meeting scheduled for Monday, June 22.

            When sewer is available, Department of Environmental Protection Section 13.305 (4) mandates all systems must be changed to sewer unless the system is an approved alternative. That would include this new technology if approved.

            In his presentation, Heufelder stated that “Nitrogen from onsite septic systems is a major cause of environmental disruption in near-shore areas, causing excessive algae growth and depleted oxygen levels. Alternative septic systems manipulate the natural nitrogen cycle and remove the nutrient forms to produce a harmless nitrogen gas.

            Heufelder estimated that a standard Title 5-compliant unit typically removes 20 to 30 percent of the nitrogen from wastewater. The majority leeches to the groundwater as nitrate and migrates the shoreline, causing environmental degradation. With the treatment unit attached, the majority of the nitrogen returns to the atmosphere as nitrogen gas.

            “We have a real good feeling for what technologies work and what ones don’t,” said Heufelder, urging residents to visit the Massachusetts DEP website.

            Long Island, he says, is just coming out of the cesspool era and is among areas yielding positive results, along with Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and locations as near as West Falmouth and as far as the west coast.

            The Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center is operated by the Barnstable County Department of Health and known by Heufelder as “Poop Central.” 

            Stony Brook University, located on Long Island Sound about halfway across the island, has corroborated the study in a partnership of its Center for Clean Water Technology.

            Residents’ questions via chat participation addressed logistical matters, but multiple queries focused on following the dollar and asking who’s to benefit in terms of contracting installations?

            “Who profits from all of this? You’re just hearing a voice on the end of a computer, but I’d say you’re all profiting from it,” said Heufelder. “No one focuses the efforts toward one lab or one vendor. If you’re an engineer and you’re listening to this, you can (install systems). I don’t have any dog in this fight.”

            Heufelder stressed that the technology is non-proprietary and that anyone can learn how to install and maintain the new system. His accompanying caution was diligent monitoring. An unchecked treatment unit on the blink, he said, is a step back from a traditional Title 5-compliant system minus the treatment unit.

            “If you ain’t watching, they ain’t working,” he said.

            Seasonal use requires more monitoring, as it takes one to two weeks of operation for a year-old system to resume denitrification. According to Heufelder’s presentation, the Marion Board of Health will establish its own monitoring and testing requirements.

            Brown estimated that a system with the treatment unit would cost an average size (i.e. three-to-four-bedroom) home approximately $6,700.

            “There might come a time when the state becomes much more dictatorial,” said Brown, noting sweeping changes in regulations in other parts of the country. “This is what we’re trying to avoid.”

By Mick Colageo

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