The Marion Board of Health held a remote public hearing on June 16 to consider public comment on a proposed regulation that would require new construction to install a nitrogen-reducing septic system if access to the municipal sewer is unavailable. The regulation would also require failed septic systems to be replaced with the new nitrogen-reducing system.
Board Clerk Dot Brown presented a slideshow that explained the background for the regulation and outlined the significant impact that septic systems would have on Marion’s coastal waters.
Brown explained that the goal of the proposal is to protect the coastal water quality in Marion by significantly limiting the impact of nitrogen generated from on-site septic systems. According to the town’s research, the largest source of nitrogen pollution to Marion’s coastal waters is wastewater from the septic systems of individual homes. The nitrogen fuels the growth of algae which can cause aesthetic and environmental concerns.
The rapid growth of this algae can brown the water, and form clumps that wash up during low tide, fouling beaches. In addition, the rapid spread of algae can block vital sunlight from penetrating and reaching plant life underwater. Without sunlight, the plants die, resulting in negative impacts on the young fish, crabs, and bay scallops that rely on the plants for their survival.
According to Brown, this is a challenge that is being faced by communities across the country. Wareham also passed the same regulation seven years ago to combat nitrogen pollution in their community.
With approximately 30 years of data collected surrounding the nitrogen in Marion’s coastal waters, it is evident that water pollution is getting worse. Aucoot Cove, Sippican Harbor and the Weweantic River fail to meet state water-quality standards and are listed on the federal EPA’s “Dirty Waters” list for being polluted with too much nitrogen.
The introduction of the new systems will not address the nitrogen pollution that already exists in the coastal waters, but Brown argued that this would be the first of many steps to slow the increases in nitrogen in the water. “If every house was on a new system the nitrogen pollution would be far less significant,” Brown explained in the hearing.
Nitrogen levels vary based on the way that each particular harbor flushes. The inner harbors face a much higher risk of pollution than outer harbors. Brown mentioned that the only factor the town has direct control over is the amount of nitrogen going into the water. The majority of nitrogen pollution comes from the ammonia in urine. The new nitrogen-reducing septic systems have the ability to convert that ammonia into nitrogen gas, which diffuses naturally and harmlessly into the atmosphere. The systems reduce the nitrogen output roughly 50 to 70 percent more compared to the conventional systems.
Continuing her presentation, Brown noted that the best alternative would be to have homes connect directly to the town’s sewer systems, which results in a 95 percent reduction in nitrogen output. A third of the total houses in Marion is not connected to the sewer system and not running on these updated systems, meaning that they are still actively polluting coastal waters. Brown hopes that mandating the use of this technology on new homes will drive the price of the systems downward as they become more popular among builders.
“We view this as a step in the right direction that will have immediate results,” Brown said. “Our hope is that many people will choose to update as well.
Charts displayed in Brown’s presentation revealed that hundreds of pounds of nitrogen would have been prevented from going into coastal waters if this regulation had been enacted in 2018.
Apart from the septic systems, the town’s wastewater treatment, cranberry bogs, fertilizers, stormwater, and atmospheric deposition can all contribute to the levels of nitrogen that appear in coastal waters. With that, Brown noted that the residents should avoid nitrogen fertilizers, but that they, and the other contributors, still make up only a small portion of the nitrogen polluting Marion’s waters.
Community members joined the hearing via public phones and expressed general concerns relating to the cost and maintenance associated with the new systems.
Brown moved to dispel many of the fears and concerns surrounding the regulation. “This regulation applies only to new home construction and those septic systems failing inspection at the time of real estate transfer,” she said. “This regulation does not apply to a properly functioning Title 5 septic system.”
Brown also explained that constructing the updated systems in new homes would not accrue significant costs. The impact of the nitrogen septic systems would only result in a one percent increase in the total cost of building a new home.
With her presentation concluded, Brown explained that the regulation is in the best interest of current homeowners and residents who hope to move to Marion. “The regulation supports the value of every property in Marion by guaranteeing the future of the town’s coastal waters and our future investments in wastewater treatment,” Brown explained.
The proposed regulation will continue to be reviewed by the Marion Board of Health and is open to public comment until July 7.
Marion Board of Health
By Matthew Donato