Falmouth Residents Press for Wastewater Alternatives
By: Brent Runyon
An enthusiastic crowd of more than 115 people filled nearly every available seat in the Hermann Foundation Meeting Room at the Falmouth Public Library on Tuesday for a forum on wastewater treatment alternatives, including composting and urine diverting toilets, aquaculture solutions, and permeable reactive barriers that could be less expensive and effective alternatives to a traditional sewer system.
“No Time to Waste,” organized by members of the Falmouth Climate Action Team, was attended by most of the major players in the local discussion, state leaders, and many Falmouth residents who discussed alternatives to the sewer project that could cost $310 million or more.
Valerie Nelson, a Gloucester resident, opened the evening by encouraging an adaptive management approach to wastewater, which allows the community to change and develop wastewater treatment over time as technology and environmental conditions change.
Earle A. Barnhart, Common Way, Hatchville, and founder of The Green Center, the successor to the New Alchemy Institute, gave an overview of the problems that wastewater is causing in Falmouth.
Falmouth residents have been struggling with solutions to nitrogen loading over the past several months.
Human waste causes most of the problems in the coastal ponds and estuaries, he explained, especially urine, which contains 70 percent of the nitrogen seeping into the groundwater, negatively affecting eelgrass, an important habitat for shellfish and sea creatures.
Because urine is the biggest problem, it would make sense to remove it from the waste stream, argued his wife, Hilde Maingay.
“If we can separate the urine with a simple urine diverting toilet, and separate the kitchen waste, we can immediately achieve an 83 percent reduction in nitrogen,” she said.
Two urine diverting toilets would cost between $1,500 and $2,000 per household. “We might have to learn to pee in a different way,” she said.
Ms. Maingay explained that she has composting toilets in her home, and they are clean and produce no odor, especially compared to traditional water-based toilets, which can be smelly, she said.
Composting toilets use no water but break down human waste mixed with wood chips and microbes in a holding tank that is emptied once a year.
“They even make them with the flush sound effect now,” Ms. Maingay said. She said two composting toilets per home would cost $12,000 to $15,000, and achieve nearly the same results as the central sewering option that would cost $45,000 per house, and serve only a few thousand households.
“This is not seriously considered because they think that it won’t be accepted by the public,” she said. “I don’t get it.”
The audience applauded loudly as she sat down.
Lower carbon & nitrogen footprint
Aquaculture specialist Ronald H. Zweig of Woods Hole, explained that oyster farming could help reduce the total amount of nitrogen in coastal bays and estuaries, and at the same time sequester tons of carbon dioxide in the shells of the oysters.
His analysis of a proposed sewer system for the area south of Route 28 in Falmouth, showed it would cost $310 million and take years to design and construct. The same results could be achieved with half as much money through aquaculture and by widening the mouths of the coastal bays.
He pointed out that an upcoming Town Meeting warrant article only refers to the wastewater projects as sewers, making the point that the town does not take alternative solutions seriously.
“Falmouth: urine trouble,” Mr. Zweig said, concluding his presentation with a pun.
A multi-faceted approach
Audience members included Virginia Valiela, the chairman of Falmouth Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan Review Committee, which finished its review of the plan just minutes before the alternatives forum began.
Ms. Valiela said that her committee recognized the need for alternative treatment options, but stressed the need for traditional sewers, explaining that the town should take parallel tracks to reach the same goal.
“We should be sewering the most densely populated areas of Falmouth and at the same time demonstrating alternative technologies,” she said.
The town should not rely solely on alternative technologies to solve its wastewater treatment problems, she said, and asked residents to support the sewer project.
“We need support. We don’t need opposition. We don’t need anyone to say that sewering doesn’t work,” she said.
Ms. Nelson invited others to weigh in on wastewater issues.
“The basic problem we have is that we have too many people and we produce too much wastewater,” said David D. Dow, president of the Cape & Islands chapter of the Sierra Club.
“These problems are only going to get worse and we need to use both science and management solutions to solve them,” he said.
Pio S. Lombardo of Lombardo Associates, an expert in permeable reactive barriers, said that the town should use the latest wastewater technologies and reevaluate what is working and what is not, and then adapt the wastewater plan accordingly.
An equitable plan needed
State Representative Matthew C. Patrick (D-Falmouth) said any wastewater discussion should include serious consideration for the lower income professionals in Falmouth, who work in the retail trade and service fields, and make an average of $20,000 a year. Those people need at least two wage earners to make ends meet, he said, and are still barely making it.
Wastewater solutions should not be so expensive that they push out the workforce, he said. “We don’t want to turn Falmouth into a gated community.”
Christopher Neil, president of FACES (Falmouth Associations Concerned with Estuaries and Salt Ponds), said that sewers do work and cited the cleanup of the Hudson River in New York City as an example of a successful sewering project.
The audience was generally receptive to the ideas of alternative technologies, especially composting toilets.
Richard H. Backus of Woods Hole Road said he has had a composting toilet for 10 years, and has not had any problems with it.
He did not think the town could mandate the use of composting toilets, he said, but should encourage their use. Ms. Valiela responded that her committee identified $50,000 for composting toilets in its recommendations to the Falmouth Board of Selectmen.
Other audience members expressed interest in alternative toilets and aquaculture projects, and questioned the cost and expenditure of the sewering project.
One woman asked Ms. Valiela exactly how much the sewering would cost and how long it would take.
“I can’t tell you exactly how much it will cost and exactly how long it will take,” Ms. Valiela said.
Brian L. Howes of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, the lead scientist for the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP), said that the towns need to use all the tools at their disposal to clean up the estuaries, but should do it quickly.
“I’ll tell you how long it takes,” he said. “It takes you guys to do something.”
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