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Proposed septic upgrade rules trigger sharp responses, pro and con

Charles Culbertson
Local waterways have been degraded by nitrogen pollution from septic systems. Santuit Pond in Mashpee has experienced significant impacts from blue-green algae blooms that are fueled by the pollution. They can pose serious public health risks.

Newly proposed septic rules that could require thousands of Cape Cod homeowners to upgrade or replace their septic systems in the next five years sparked heated debate last night at a virtual public meeting.

More than two dozen people weighed via Zoom in on the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (Mass DEP) efforts to reduce nitrogen pollution that’s harmed water quality in ponds, rivers, and bays.

Several homeowners and environmentalists said poorly designed backyard wastewater systems are destroying water quality across the region, and urged state officials to do whatever it takes to clean it up.

“Please do not be persuaded, deterred, or bullied into changing regulations based on complaints of economic hardship,” East Harwich resident Patrick Otten told state environmental officials. “Now, it’s our turn to pay the price for living in an environment we call home. That’s Cape Cod.”

The state is proposing two amendments to regulators that inform how septic systems can operate. One amendment to a rule known as “Title 5” would recognize where nitrogen pollution from septic systems has degraded coastal waters, and create "Nitrogen Sensitive Areas.” Property owners in those areas, under the second amendment, would need to replace or upgrade their septic systems within five years. Experts estimate that kind of project could cost individual homeowners more than $35,000.

But those costs could be avoided if towns obtained watershed permits that demonstrated that they were managing stormwater runoff and fertilizer use, and pursuing other routes to reduce nitrogen pollution.

Obtaining those permits isn’t a sure thing, which is why others at the hearing, including Terry Crowley of Westport, said potentially being forced to upgrade her new septic system would be financially devastating.

“We put $30,000 into that septic system. And now you’re telling me it’s not good enough? It’s not even 18 months old,” she said.

Dartmouth resident Jeannine Jenney shared similar concerns.

“I agree we need to clean our water. I’m not against that,” she said. “What I’m against is targeting a group of people — homeowners — to give them a huge bill on their hands, when that might not even solve the problem.”

But to Mashpee resident Ed McGuire, local waters need saving, no matter the cost.

“Sitting around doing nothing, which we’ve done for the last 25 or 30 years is not an option anymore. It’s gonna cost people money,” he said. “That’s gonna be a fact of life.”

The final public hearing on the proposed regulations will be held tonight at 6 p.m. Written comments on the proposed regulations are being accepted through the end of this month. They can be sent by e-mail to dep.talks@mass.gov, with “Title 5 & Watershed Permit” in the subject line. Written comments may also be submitted by mail and should be sent to:

MassDEP, Bureau of Water Resources – Division of Watershed Management
Attention: Title 5 & Watershed Permit
100 Cambridge Street, 9th Floor
Boston, MA 02114

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.