State considering changes to septic system regulations

Up to 2,000 residents in the Dartmouth area could be asked to replace their sewage systems in the near future, according to a proposed change to state regulations.

City officials have questioned these potential law changes, citing costs that could be prohibitive for many residents.

Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection issued a recommendation to update its Title V regulations to require it Inspections of septic systems and cesspools before selling or expanding a home.

Under MassDEP’s proposal, new and existing septic tanks near watersheds would need to incorporate federally-approved nitrogen reduction technology within five years of the regulation’s amendment.

An exception would be through watershed permits that would give communities 20 years to achieve 75% of the state’s nitrogen reduction target.

Should a license be terminated, all new septic systems would require the technology.

“This approach offers communities the opportunity to deploy a wider range of solutions to meet their water quality needs, including alternative or innovative approaches,” the proposal reads.

The recommendation is part of the state’s decades-long effort to reduce nitrogen pollution in the estuaries of southeast Massachusetts.

According to MassDEP, High levels of nitrogen can lead to a decline in aquatic plants and wildlife and negatively impact these coastal ecosystems. Worse consequences can include fish kills, unpleasant odors and foam, and the reduction or loss of benthic species that live on the bottom of water bodies.

To combat pollution, the state, in partnership with UMass Dartmouth, created the Massachusetts estuary project in 2001.

The project surveyed 89 estuaries from Cape Cod to Mount Hope Bay in Fall River with the goal of providing local and state officials with the data they need to make good contamination control decisions.

A public hearing took place in 2018 at City Hall to discuss some of these strategies.

As a result, the state determined that on-site sewage systems are a major source of pollution and that it must establish new “natural resource areas” around each watershed connected to an indentation or sub-indentation subject to federal standards.

These include two estuaries in Dartmouth: the Slocum River and the eastern branch of the Westport River watershed. There are an estimated 2,000 properties around these areas that are connected to private sewage systems, according to the city’s health director, Chris Michaud.

Officials wondered if these homes could be connected to the city sewer system, but Michaud said that wasn’t possible.

“Between the master plan and our approved flow rate at the treatment plant…we don’t have any [the capacity]he said at a recent Select Board meeting.

The main concern of the proposed change, Michaud said, is the financial impact it could have on these residents.

It is currently unknown what the cost of the new systems will be, although according to a 2017 Buzzards Bay Coalition Reportprices can range from $10,000 to $15,000 per installation.

“It’s a significant effort,” Michaud said. “Even the lower end numbers in the low five digits may not be within reach of our seniors and regular earners [residents] – those struggling with historic inflation highs.”

According to Dartmouth State Assemblyman Chris Markey, grants are being made available to alleviate some of that burden.

“We want to make sure we have the funding in everything we do,” he said.

As for watershed permits, Michaud noted that an agreement with cities that share watersheds would be needed. In this case, the estuaries are shared with Westport and New Bedford.

“If you can’t align goals through an inter-municipal agreement, as summarized here, then you have to stick to the specifications [septic tank] Mandate: the horse pill,” he said.

Another concern Michaud had was the timing of these proposed changes.

“All of a sudden there’s an emergency here,” Michaud said. “It worries me that we are going to do something so impactful for 2,000 households at the worst financial time – this will be a hasty approach to waste prevention, with no regard for the impact on people.”

He also took offense at the state’s findings that Dartmouth’s sewage systems were such a prominent polluter.

According to the Estuary Project, 29% of the nitrogen entering waterways comes from on-site septic tanks.

Other important contributors are fertilizers, the Russells Mills landfill, and atmospheric deposition.

“The watershed gets nitrogen that no one can ever control unless you put a giant umbrella over it [it]’ said Michaud. “Some of these things are just wild guesses [DEP].”

The most overlooked factor, the public health director said, is the department’s deregulation of solid waste composting in 2013.

“They brought the composting over here to Dartmouth and put thousands of tons into the watershed,” he said. “And they haven’t offered a solution to that.”

A MassDEP spokesman could not be reached for comment, but the state plans to hold public hearings on its potential regulatory changes in the fall.

A copy of MassDEP’s proposal is attached to this story.

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