Dartmouth town officials say that proposed environmental regulations could have major financial consequences for South Coast communities.

The proposed rules are aimed at protecting local waters from nitrogen pollution, which can cause harmful algae blooms. One way nitrogen gets into the environment is through septic systems that allow wastewater to leach into the soil.

That’s why the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is requiring residents of the South Coast and Cape Cod to replace or upgrade their septic systems, unless their town develops a plan to reduce nitrogen pollution.

Dartmouth Board of Health Director Chris Michaud said the state is moving too fast for towns to keep up. “No one has said we want a dirtier environment,” Michaud said. “Where the disagreement is is how we get there, and we were left out — municipalities were left out of the discussion.”

Meanwhile, environmental activists say the regulations are long overdue.

“Nitrogen pollution is one of the greatest long-term threats to the health of Buzzards Bay and all of its more than 30 harbors and coves around the bay,” said Korrin Petersen, vice president of clean water advocacy for the Buzzards Bay Coalition. “We need to leave these waters cleaner than they are today for the next generation, and that means we have to act today.”

One conservation group estimated it would cost $30,000 to $35,000 to upgrade or replace a septic system to meet the proposed regulations. But Michaud argues that it isn’t even clear which systems would qualify, since the regulations simply require the “best-available, nitrogen-reducing technology.” There’s no quantifiable threshold for how much nitrogen they would need to remove.

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Towns like Dartmouth can avoid a requirement for septic upgrades by applying for a watershed permit and submitting a plan to reduce nitrogen pollution. But that comes with costs for taxpayers.

“It’s not a cheap permit to arrive at,” Michaud said. “It’s not like just, ‘I want to go get a beach sticker.’”

The town will have to spend resources managing the permit, doing engineering work, and collecting data, he said. The 20-year permit requires long-term planning and annual reporting to demonstrate progress. The state hasn’t put money on the table to help.

Petersen said the smartest way to finance these projects would be through bipartisan infrastructure law, which provides the state with $1.1 billion in loans for clean water projects over the next five years. The money is being offered at low interest rates, and there could be loan forgiveness.

Petersen thinks the requirement to upgrade every septic system is too burdensome for residents, but she supports the other option that allows for towns to put together their own nitrogen pollution reduction plans

“We very much support comprehensive planning that develops the right mix of solutions to improve water quality,” she said. “And these regulations give towns the flexibility to do that.”

Some members of the South Coast’s State House delegation have pushed back against the new regulations, too. Mark Montigny, state senator for the 2nd Bristol and Plymouth, and Christopher Markey, state representative for the 9th Bristol District, wrote to the state’s environmental protection agency last week.

Montigny and Markey raised concerns about the transparency of the regulatory process and what they see as unfair, scientifically unsound overreach.

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“Instead of bludgeoning these municipalities and their citizens into arbitrary frameworks more effort should have been put into tailoring solutions that are not only impactful but manageable for each town and city,” they wrote.

The legislators pointed out that the regulations were proposed after the Conservation Law Foundation sued the state for failing to limit nitrogen pollution on Cape Cod. They said South Coast towns like Dartmouth were being “jammed” into the results of a lawsuit that they weren’t involved in.

Nitrogen is harmful to bays and estuaries because it promotes algae growth. That leads to low oxygen levels in the water, which makes it hard for other plants and animals in the water to survive.

“All of this is driven by nitrogen pollution from the watershed — so, land-based sources of nitrogen pollution,” Petersen said. “The primary source all around the bay from Westport to Falmouth and the islands are septic systems.”

Systems approved under the current regulations are designed to remove viruses and bacteria, but not nitrogen, Petersen said. She and Michaud said the state could have taken action on nitrogen a long time ago, but it didn’t.

“Nitrogen as a source of pollution is not some 21st century discovery,” Michaud said. “It’s punishing the people because of a dilatory state agency.”

A state official who is familiar with the proposed regulations was not available for an interview Monday.

Michaud and his colleagues point to other sources of nitrogen pollution that they say the state is overlooking — nitrogen can also get into water from fertilizers and composting.  In a letter to state regulators, Dartmouth Environmental Affairs Coordinator Marc J. Garrett shared data indicating that agriculture and landscaping added more nitrogen to local bodies of water than septic systems.

“They need to deal with this as a whole,” Michaud said. “Why is it that they expect us to deal with this holistically when they are not dealing with it holistically as the chief environmental protection agency of the commonwealth?”

Michaud said the regulation will be unenforceable because the state won’t have the resources to challenge all the noncompliant towns in court.

“Have you ever been on the Southeast Expressway when all the cars are going well beyond the speed limit, and they’re bumper to bumper, and there’s a state trooper amongst them, and no one seems to worry?” he said. “They know they can’t pull over everyone — there’s no room to pull them over.”

Cape Cod residents will have five years to upgrade their septic systems if the regulations go into effect, but the state hasn’t established a timeline for the South Coast. In the meantime, Michaud estimates that roughly 50 Dartmouth residents have installed a new septic system in the last year that might not meet the new regulations.

“We are issuing permits today — people are putting septic systems in tomorrow, that we are going to later tell them, if these regulations promulgate, ‘Oh guess what, you’re not grandfathered, you gotta do something else,’” he said.

The town of Dartmouth will hold an informational meeting Tuesday, Dec. 13, at 6 p.m. in the Select Board meeting room. The town’s Select Board will also hold a special meeting on Monday, Dec. 19, at 6:30 p.m.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is holding its own information sessions and public hearings next month. Written comments will be accepted until Jan. 30.

Email Grace Ferguson at gferguson@newbedfordlight.org

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