For those homes in Mashpee that will never get sewers, town officials should consider installing innovative/alternative, or I/A, septic systems in addition to treatment plants and sewers to accelerate the cleanup of our polluted surface waters.
Dr. Brian Howes and other environmental experts have told us that many of our ponds in Mashpee have reached eutrophication and our coastal waters are impaired. This sad state of affairs exists because we have done virtually nothing to stop the pollution of our surface waters for 30-plus years. We, as a town, are in crisis and realistically will face declining property values, health challenges and loss of Mashpee as a tourist destination if decisive action is not taken soon.
A grass-roots organization, Barnstable Clean Water Coalition, has taken the lead in this crisis and will be installing a total of 15 KleanTu NiTROE systems (i.e., enhanced I/A septic systems) in Marstons Mills around Shubael Pond, resulting in a significant reduction of nitrogen going into the leaching field. Shubael Pond homeowners have the good fortune of having the NiTROE system provided free of charge through private funds. The system is provisionally approved by the state, and the coalition anticipates general-use approval by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection within a few years.
We know that our conventional septic systems do little, if anything, to reduce nitrogen load from our homes. The NiTROE system can be retrofitted to a conventional septic system and works as follows: Solid waste and liquids from toilets, washing machines and sinks enter the septic tank where solids sink to the bottom. The ammonia from the liquid portion is directed into the first chamber of the NiTROE tank, an aeration chamber, whereby the ammonia is converted to nitrate. The nitrate then moves into the second chamber, the wood chip chamber, where nitrate is converted into odorless nitrogen gas and released into the air. The balance of the nitrate effluent enters the leach field and is absorbed in the soil. Of 18 NiTROE installations in Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth, average nitrogen effluent is between 6.7 and 8.7 mg/L.
According to the New England Water Environment Association, the 2020 Cape Cod nitrogen load from homes on Title 5 measured 26 to 42 mg/L, 45 to 65 mg/L for untreated cesspools and 5 mg/L for sewer/treatment plants. If NiTROE is giving us 6.7 as the low number, we certainly should consider this system to accelerate our cleanup of our surface waters.
Title 5 requires that the property owner of an I/A system have in place at the time of the installation an operation and maintenance contract with a Massachusetts-certified wastewater operator, and such contract must continue through the life of the system (20 to 30 years). It is my understanding that if the property owner installs an approved I/A system with an operation and maintenance contract in place, the property owner will not be required to hook up to the sewer if and when it becomes available. (The property owner should confirm this in writing with the Mashpee Health Department before installation of an I/A system.)
Creating centralized treatment plants/sewers is the current paradigm on the Cape. The NiTROE system might be the best option not only where there are no plans for sewers but also in areas where sewers will not be built for 10 to 30 years. So, are we going to wait five years or more for a treatment plant/sewer hookup for a small portion of Mashpee and just let the nitrogen build up and render the waters DEAD? The cost of the NiTROE system ranges between $18,000 and $20,000 for a retrofit (NiTROE tank fit to existing Title 5 system and leach field) and between $28,000 and $30,000 for a full replacement (new Title 5 system plus NiTROE tank plus new leach field). The problem is many homeowners cannot afford such a huge capital expenditure. While this system is in the provisional approved stage with MassDEP, stage-supported financing and/or grants and/or tax incentives may not be available. Would some wealthy homeowners around Popponesset Bay be willing to pay for and have a NiTROE system installed on their property? Is there a way to shorten the time for general approval of the system? Massachusetts permits an owner of a residential property who occupies the residential property as his principal residence a “Title 5 Tax Credit,” which is available for the repair or replacement of a failed septic system or cesspool. Shouldn’t these new I/A systems have the same opportunity for funding?
Of all the possible funding plans, the most promising prospect for obtaining funds for Mashpee in the near term is under the American Rescue Plan Act. Barnstable County will receive $41 million under the Act. Water and sewer will be the top two priorities. Barnstable County will solicit comments as to how this money will be spent by contacting elected and appointed officials in all Cape towns, the county’s legislative delegation, the Assembly of Delegates, community and business leaders and members of the public. It is important that we as residents of Mashpee make our voices heard.
We should not wait for science to create the perfect I/A septic system while we wait for sewers. Action is needed right now to remediate our water pollution as the nitrogen-laden groundwater continues its relentless march to our ponds and the ocean.
To learn more about the NiTROE system and see an installation that was completed in August 2021, take a look at the video that Barnstable Clean Water Coalition produced. (Type in “Shubael Pond Innovative/Alternative (I/A) septic system project” on YouTube.)
Karen D. Faulkner
Asher’s Path West