Mashpee selectmen are poised to enter agreements with the other three Upper Cape towns and Barnstable in order to strike a deal with officials at Joint Base Cape Cod to construct a large-scale wastewater treatment facility.
The arrangement could potentially treat roughly a third of Mashpee’s future collected wastewater, if not more.
A report issued by engineering consultants Wright-Pierce presented to the board last Monday August 5 shows that the potential is there for the five towns to build a facility to handle 4.5 million gallons of wastewater per day and for Mashpee to use the facility to mitigate groundwater pollution produced by homes in the northwest part of town.
The initial cost to build a treatment system to accommodate the “flow” of the four towns, plus Barnstable, would be an estimated $229 million, with an annual maintenance cost of $4.6 million, the consultant said.
That estimate does not include each town’s cost for installing sewers and other “collection systems.”
Selectmen will likely finalize an article for the October Town Meeting that would support Mashpee’s participation in feasibility planning for the regional treatment facility and would authorize Mr. Collins to negotiate with the four other towns for how the facility would be used and where the treated water would be discharged. The article would include a sum of money yet to be determined, but Mr. Collins estimated the cost at about $250,000 to $300,000.
Monday’s presentation follows a lot of planning on Mashpee’s behalf.
The Mashpee Sewer Commission, in its comprehensive nitrogen mitigation wastewater plan approved by the state in 2015, has looked to make use of an existing treatment plant on the base ever since its current occupants, the 102nd Intelligence Wing of the US Air Force, has looked for a separate entity to run it.
Sandwich, Bourne, and Falmouth have also looked to use the facility and recently Barnstable has joined the discussion, leading to the need to create a larger facility.
But the Intelligence Wing has also opened the bidding process to the public, and already a few entities have officially expressed interest, raising the stakes for the Upper Cape towns and Barnstable.
“I don’t need a decision tonight, but I need to have a direction for where we are going,” town manager Rodney C. Collins told the Mashpee selectmen.
While no formal vote was taken, the board was unanimous about moving forward on the base facility proposal.
If the deal fails to materialize, the town would have to build its own separate treatment plant, a backup plan proposed on Back Road near a residential neighborhood at a cost that would be more expensive in the short term, the consultant report noted.
Residents and selectmen have questioned if the base could handle more than just the northwest portion of the town, as has been planned, but the east portion as well, specifically treating wastewater to be collected from homes that have polluted the Mashpee River and Popponesset Bay watersheds.
Selectmen and the sewer commission have faced scrutiny from residents with homes near a proposed town-run treatment plant near the Mashpee Transfer Station.
The question has been raised if the town could save money—and spare the residents of the Asher’s Path community—if that plant needed to be built at all, and the town could instead pump collected sewage uphill and across town to the base.
Wright-Pierce consultants and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection did not answer that question outright on Monday, but said that further study would be needed.
The issue is not the actual treatment of the septic and whether the base could handle it, but the actual discharge of the sewage after it is treated. The base has the room to expand the treatment plant itself.
But to dispose of the water after it has been treated and the nitrogen content vastly reduced, Wright-Pierce is recommending disbursing it into the ground and into the Cape Cod Canal. The disbursement method would require permits from many state and federal environmental agencies, said Edward Leonard, a consultant with Wright-Pierce.
“Treatment capacity is not the limiting factor other than cost,” said Brian Dudley, an environmental engineer with the state Department of Environmental Protection who attended Monday’s presentation. “The real limiting factor is how much effluent we can dispose,” he said.
The Wright-Pierce report said that although the military base is about 22,000 acres, most of that acreage is environmentally sensitive and only about 100 acres would be usable for the discharge of treated water.
Mr. Leonard said state, federal and military base officials attended a recent workshop on regional wastewater solutions and all agreed that the disposal issues were “not insurmountable.”
Following the update, selectmen discussed what was next and how the board would approach voters at the October Town Meeting.
While the board was more than willing to move forward with the regional facility, moving forward with its own infrastructure in the east of Mashpee was a different story. The board has already delayed funding sewers for a number of years, and some on the board have become concerned. Meanwhile, others were cautious about moving forward, holding out hope that the base could treat the eastern part of the town as well.
Both came to a head Monday when selectman Carol A. Sherman made a motion to withdraw an article from the October Town Meeting warrant that would begin funding the Asher’s Path plant and collection system. The article asked that residents agree to use $1.6 million to complete the design of a sewer collection system—essentially piping—for the residential area near the Mashpee River.
Selectman Thomas F. O’Hara pointed at that plans at the base have changed dramatically since the last five years. He was still hopeful that it could handle not just the west part of town, but also the east, cancelling the need for the town’s own plant there.
“I understand that they may not be able to take all of the town’s wastewater. I get that,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t, because there are also opportunities for expansion.”
Andrew R. Gottlieb, chairman of the board of selectmen, struck back at Ms. Sherman’s motion, saying that the board in 2015 had unanimously committed to taking control of the town’s sewer plan and has since then have only delayed funding. He pointed out that the report in front of them did not even consider bringing sewage from the Mashpee River area to the base.
He said that the board has found every nuance and opportunity to delay funding the plan. “And I’m goddamn tired of it,” Mr. Gottlieb said.
He pointed out that a researcher had reported to the board two weeks ago that the town had the worst estuaries on Cape Cod, yet the first thing the board wanted to do was pull the article.
Selectman John J. Cotton agreed that it might be hasty to pull the funding article.
No one seconded Ms. Sherman’s motion.
Mr. Cotton then suggested that instead of putting the $1.6 million towards a direct use, the board ought to rephrase the article and request the funding for wastewater projects in general. If the town ended up delivering more sewage to the regional facility than planned, the town could use that money for work and construction on the regional project. If the plan continued as is, the money would still be there for the Asher’s Path facility. The Cape Cod Commission has already provided the town $450,000 in mitigation funds for a preliminary design of the town plant.
After discussing the language, the board voted 3-1 in favor of Mr. Cotton’s motion, essentially leaving the article on the warrant.
The board took essentially the same action on the next article, a proposal to spend $840,000 in funding to the design of the Asher’s Path facility. Instead of a direct use, the board would redraft the article with language that put the funds into a nonspecific, wastewater account.
But not before Ms. Sherman made another motion to pull the article. This time, Mr. O’Hara seconded her motion but it failed to carry as the board voted 2-2, Ms. Sherman and Mr. O’Hara casting the lone yes votes. The article remained on the warrant.
The board still has until October Town Meeting to make changes to the warrant before they reach the floor for a public debate.
The board, given the new information on Joint Base Cape Cod, will meet for a special meeting on Monday, August 12, with members of the sewer commission, to discuss the wastewater plan going forward.
Also at the Monday meeting, while the board did not discuss it, was a potential article for the October warrant on Community Preservation Act funding.
The article would reduce the local surtax on the town property tax for Community Preservation Act funding from 3 percent down to 1 percent, while taxing residents an additional 3-percent surcharge to go into a wastewater account. The board had considered an article that would reduce CPA down to two percent and wastewater up to 2 percent. Community preservation funding goes towards recreation, open space, and historic and affordable housing projects in Mashpee. The new proposal will likely come up at Monday’s special meeting.
Enterprise reporter Tao Woolfe contributed to this article.