DARTMOUTH — New state regulations targeting septic systems are designed to burden towns with the cost of reducing nitrogen pollution, Dartmouth officials say.
“This is the most rotten and corrupted process of government I have ever seen in Massachusetts,” said Dartmouth Health Director Chris Michaud. “This is absolutely disgusting to the core, and it needs to be purified. We can’t continue on this process of these [regulations].”
A set of rules proposed by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection would require homeowners on the South Coast, Cape Cod, and islands to replace their septic systems with the latest nitrogen-filtering technology. It’s an effort to reduce nitrogen-rich wastewater runoff, which stimulates algae growth to the detriment of plants and animals in local waters.
The agency is currently accepting comments on the proposed regulations. If they go into effect, homeowners would have just five years to install the new systems. Each will cost around $20,000 to $35,000, according to the agency.
But local environmental advocates and Dartmouth town officials say that the agency doesn’t really want everyone to replace their septic systems.
Andrew Gottlieb, the executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, previously worked for the state environmental agency and served on a subcommittee that helped develop the regulations. At a panel discussion on wastewater in November, he said that thousands of septic upgrades would be a huge task to accomplish in just five years, and “anybody who really knows anything” doubts it would solve the nitrogen problem.
“It’s really a way to change the dynamic between the voter and the town officials, which historically has been: Town comes up with a big wastewater infrastructure bill, people in town go, ‘We don’t wanna pay that, go pound sand,’ and nothing happens,” he said. “Frankly, it’s politics at the local level that it’s trying to change.”
There’s a way homeowners could get out of the expensive upgrades, and that’s if their towns get a watershed permit. This new type of permit would require the town to develop a plan to cut its nitrogen pollution by 75% over 20 years, or at least make reasonable progress toward that goal.
Gottlieb said he thinks the agency’s real objective is to get towns to apply for watershed permits. So does Korrin Petersen, vice president of clean water advocacy for the Buzzards Bay Coalition and another member of the subcommittee that helped the agency develop the regulations.
“DEP is trying to drive communities there by coming up with this unworkable, onerous five-year requirement,” she said.
If the agency wants towns to get watershed permits, why not just require them in the first place? State officials say they don’t have the authority to issue a mandate like that, but they can make the permits a voluntary option under the septic regulations.
Michaud, the Dartmouth health director, said it’s a coercive way to generate public support for watershed management plans. He explained that the prospect of costly septic upgrades will scare homeowners, who will then force their towns to apply for the watershed permit to save them from the expense.
“So we have a state agency, now, that is creating regulations to interfere with politics or to create political decisions,” Michaud said. “That’s disturbing.”
The watershed permit comes with its own costs — towns will have to spend time and resources on management, data collection, and engineering work. The state has suggested towns apply for loans and grants to complete the work, but it hasn’t offered up a guaranteed funding source.
“They are going to heap thousands and thousands of dollars upon individual homeowners, or thousands and thousands of dollars on the taxpayer,” said Dartmouth Select Board Member Shawn McDonald. “Neither one of them is a good answer.”
McDonald wasn’t sure the town would raise taxes to fund a watershed permit, but he said he’s sure they would have to move money away from existing programs and services.
“It’s just a huge, huge money pit,” he said. “They want us to cook a meal without telling us how to buy the groceries.”
Petersen said watershed management plans are the right solution to the nitrogen problem, but it’s irresponsible for the agency to issue a regulation like this without a funding package to go with it. After all, she said, the state allowed towns to permit nitrogen-polluting septic systems for decades.
She added that the Buzzards Bay Coalition does not support the five-year septic upgrade requirement.
“This is a very big stick they’re proposing — it’s the wrong stick to be proposing,” she said.
Meanwhile, Gottlieb called the local resistance a “lazy, knee-jerk reaction” and said it should be the towns’ responsibility to address nitrogen pollution that happened under their watch.
“I think they’re a long-overdue, extremely necessary, and well thought-out set of rules,” he told The Light. “I think it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, and short-sighted for towns to say, ‘We can’t do this.’ You can do it.”
One thing that the town officials and environmental advocates could all agree on was the need for some kind of solution to the pollution problem.
Cars, fertilizers, composting, and waste from septic systems can all add nitrogen to the environment. When the element finds its way into bays and estuaries it can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. It sends algae into overdrive, shading aquatic plants from the sun and consuming oxygen that aquatic animals need to survive.
Petersen said that the local economy and quality of life depend on a healthy Buzzards Bay where people can fish, boat, and enjoy the beaches.
“Solving the nitrogen pollution problem — that’s not an optional issue,” she said. “It is central to our region’s success and everybody’s livability here.”
In 2021, the Conservation Law Foundation sued the Department of Environmental Protection for failing to limit nitrogen pollution on Cape Cod. That lawsuit appears to be driving the rulemaking — the foundation agreed to pause the litigation last year while the agency drafts new nitrogen regulations.
Michaud and McDonald have accused the agency of working with special interests and ignoring the needs of communities. While the agency has met with municipalities, including Dartmouth, the local officials question why they weren’t included on the Nitrogen Sensitive Area subcommittee, a sounding board for the agency that Petersen and Gottlieb served on.
When Michaud asked the agency who was on that committee, they told him to file a public records request. After Michaud filed his request, it took months and multiple orders from the Massachusetts secretary of state for the agency to finally release the list.
The subcommittee members mainly consisted of agency employees, environmental advocates, and representatives of real estate and engineering firms. It also included State Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents the Cape and Islands, and representatives for the Cape Cod Commission and Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.
There were no towns represented on the subcommittee. Michaud and McDonald said they believe the agency designed it that way intentionally.
“They’ve earned my distrust,” Michaud said. “And that’s pretty bad that our chief environmental protective agency in the commonwealth has acted in such a clandestine manner with special interests, excluding true stakeholders.”
McDonald said he thinks the agency knew that municipalities would push back, and they didn’t want to hear it.
“They’re not doing this in good faith,” he said. “The lack of transparency, the lack of good faith, the lack of concern for the communities in the commonwealth and the areas they serve, it’s abysmal.”
In a statement to The Light, State Sen. Mark Montigny, who represents the 2nd Bristol and Plymouth District, said the membership of the committee is “undoubtably a public record and one that should have been made readily available.” Montigny expressed disappointment that communities didn’t have a larger role in the rulemaking process, and said the agency should slow down or start the process over.
“It is no secret that nitrogen pollution presents a very real and serious threat to the health of our waterways and surrounding habitats, but we must find a more balanced approach toward resolving the issue,” the statement said.
A spokesperson for the agency declined requests for an interview with officials and was unable to provide answers to emailed questions in time for this report.
The agency is accepting written comments on the regulations until Jan. 30. It will also hold two more information sessions, with one held virtually on Tuesday and another at UMass Dartmouth on Wednesday. Two public hearings will follow later in the month.
More information on how to provide comments and attend the meetings is available on the agency’s website.
Michaud hopes residents will take the opportunity to make their voices heard.
“The only way we’re gonna change all this is if people get mad and speak up,” he said at a Dartmouth Select board meeting earlier this month. “If people don’t turn out and scorch them, they’re going to use that as a sign that it’s all blown over.”
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