DARTMOUTH — State Sen. Mark Montigny and state Rep. Chris Markey introduced a bill this week that would gut the state’s controversial new regulations on septic systems.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is considering a set of rules aimed at reducing nitrogen pollution. If they go into effect, they would force homeowners on the South Coast, Cape Cod and the islands to upgrade their septic systems to nitrogen-filtering models — they cost an estimated $20,000 to $35,000 apiece, with annual operating expenses of $1,000 to $2,000.
There’s an exception for homeowners in towns that get a watershed permit, which requires the town to put together a plan to reduce nitrogen pollution. But the regulations don’t include any money to cover the management and engineering costs the towns would face. Local officials have lashed out at the environmental agency, saying the regulations amount to an unfunded mandate.
The state says the regulations are aimed at reducing nitrogen in local waters, which hurts aquatic life. Septic systems are a major source of nitrogen runoff in some areas, but the element can also come from cars, agriculture and composting.
Montigny and Markey’s bill would stop the agency from requiring nitrogen-reducing septic upgrades. The legislation would also make it illegal to require watershed permits without any funding attached.
Dozens of Markey’s Dartmouth constituents have called and emailed him about the proposed regulations, the representative said.
One of his main problems with the regulations is that they seem to push towns toward the watershed permit option, but don’t offer any guaranteed funding to go with it. Markey sees this bill as a way to protect taxpayers from an unfunded mandate.
“You can’t put it on the backs of the residents who have septic, or the backs of the towns that don’t have the expertise, don’t have the resources,” he said.
Environmental advocates have said that watershed permits are the right way to address nitrogen pollution because they allow each town to come up with solutions that will work for their local environment. Markey and Montigny’s bill still allows watershed permitting to move forward, under the condition that the department or Legislature finds a funding source.
Where that money comes from is still an open question.
“That’s for us to figure out somewhere down the line,” Markey said. “I don’t have a funding mechanism at this point, but until we do I don’t think we should pass the regulations.”
Rep. Paul Schmid supports the bill, too. His district covers Westport and Acushnet, both of which have many residents who depend on septic systems.
“It’s pretty clear in my mind that we want to clean up our waters, but possibly putting people in the position of having to come up with $20,000 to $30,000 — that’s not fair, and we won’t let that happen,” he said.
Schmid said the Legislature would need to allocate funding if the environmental agency implements a watershed permit policy.
“I’d be very happy to fight for it, I’m sure my colleagues would also,” he said.
Rep. Bill Straus said that Markey and Montigny’s bill was a good contribution, but legislation takes too long to pass, and the public needed assurance sooner. Instead, he called on Gov. Maura Healey to step in.
“I think the Healey administration should call a timeout, which it has the authority to do, and say we’re rethinking the policy,” Straus said. The governor’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
Still, Straus said he’s “absolutely” on board to help his colleagues find the funding for watershed permits when it’s time to implement a permanent solution.
He said he would like to see the agency offer incentives for towns to sign up for watershed permits, rather than the threat of costly septic upgrades.
“It starts with an attitude that says, ‘We’re going to work with you, we’re not going to tell you what your future looks like,’” he said
Chris Michaud, the Dartmouth health director, has been a leading critic of the regulations. He still has concerns about how watershed permits would be enforced, but he said he appreciates the funding support that the bill would require.
“This is the first bit of good news we’ve seen,” he said.
In a statement to The Light, a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection said the agency does not comment on pending legislation, but the Healey-Driscoll administration is aware of the public interest in the septic regulations and it is continuing to accept comments.
“The Administration is committed to ensuring that any final regulations protect the Commonwealth’s natural resources and to mitigating their impacts on communities,” the statement said.
Comments from the public will be accepted until Jan. 30. There will also be two more public hearings on Jan. 24 and 25. More information on how to comment is available on the agency’s website.
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