Dartmouth officials assail state’s ‘corrupted’ septic regulation process
DARTMOUTH — New state regulations targeting sewage systems are set to burden cities with the cost of reducing nitrogen pollution, Dartmouth officials say.
“This is the laziest and most corrupt government process I have ever seen in Massachusetts,” said Chris Michaud, Dartmouth’s director of health. “This is absolutely disgusting to the core and needs cleaning. We cannot continue this process [regulations].”
A set of rules proposed by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection would require homeowners on the South Coast, Cape Cod and the islands to replace their sewage systems with the latest nitrogen filter technology. It is an attempt to reduce nitrogen-rich wastewater runoff, which stimulates algae growth to the detriment of plants and animals in local waters.
The Agency is currently accepting comments on the proposed rules. If they go into effect, homeowners would only have five years to install the new systems. Each will cost about $20,000 to $35,000, according to the agency.
But local environmentalists and Dartmouth City officials say the agency doesn’t really want everyone to replace their septic systems.
Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, previously worked for the state environmental agency and served on a subcommittee that helped develop the regulations. At a panel on wastewater in November, he said thousands of septic tank upgrades in just five years would be a huge task, and “anybody who really knows” doubts it would solve the nitrogen problem.
“It’s really a way of changing the dynamic between voters and city officials that historically has been: the city comes up with a big bill for sewage infrastructure, people in the city say, ‘We don’t want to pay that, go sand crushed, ‘and nothing happens,’ he said. ‘Honestly, it’s local politics that they’re trying to change.’
There’s one way homeowners could get out of the expensive upgrades, and that’s if their cities get a watershed permit. This new type of permit would require the city to develop a plan to reduce its nitrogen pollution by 75% over 20 years, or at least make reasonable progress toward that goal.
Gottlieb said he thinks the agency’s real goal is to get cities to apply for watershed permits. So did Korrin Petersen, vice president of clean water advocacy for the Buzzards Bay Coalition and another member of the subcommittee who helped the agency develop the regulations.
“DEP is trying to push communities there by imposing this unworkable, onerous five-year requirement,” she said.
If the agency wants cities to get watershed permits, why not require them upfront? State officials say they don’t have the power to issue such a mandate, but they can make the permits a voluntary option under septic regulations.
Michaud, Dartmouth’s health director, said it was a coercive tool to gain public support for watershed management plans. He explained that the prospect of costly septic upgrades will spook homeowners, who will then force their cities to apply for watershed permits to save them from the expense.
“So now we have a government agency that makes regulations to intervene in politics or to make political decisions,” Michaud said. “This is disturbing.”
The watershed permit has its own costs – cities must devote time and resources to administration, data collection, and engineering. The state has suggested cities apply for loans and grants to complete the work, but has not offered a guaranteed source of funding.
“They’re going to pile thousands upon thousands of dollars on individual homeowners or thousands upon thousands of dollars on the taxpayer,” said Dartmouth Select board member Shawn McDonald. “Neither is a good answer.”
McDonald wasn’t sure if the city would collect taxes to fund a watershed permit, but he said he was sure they would have to divert money from existing programs and services.
“It’s just a huge, huge money pit,” he said. “They want us to cook a meal without telling us how to buy the groceries.”
Petersen said watershed management plans are the right solution to the nitrogen problem, but it is irresponsible for the agency to enact such an ordinance without a matching funding package. After all, the state has allowed cities for decades to allow nitrogen-polluting sewage treatment plants.
She added that the Buzzards Bay Coalition does not support the five-year septic tank upgrade requirement.
“This is a very big racquet that they are proposing – it’s the wrong racquet that they are proposing,” she said.
Meanwhile, Gottlieb called the local resistance a “lazy, knee-jerk response” and said it should be the responsibility of cities to address the nitrogen pollution that took place under their oversight.
“I think they’re a long overdue, extremely necessary and well thought out set of rules,” he told The Light. “I think it’s frugal and foolish and short-sighted for cities to say, ‘We can’t do this.’ You can do it.”
One thing that city officials and environmentalists all agreed on was the need for a solution to the environmental problem.
Cars, fertilizers, composting and waste from sewage treatment plants can add nitrogen to the environment. When the element finds its way into bays and estuaries, it can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. It kickstarts algae, shields aquatic plants from the sun, and uses up oxygen, which aquatic animals need to survive.
Petersen said the local economy and quality of life depend on a healthy Buzzards Bay where people can fish, boat and enjoy the beaches.
“Solving the problem of nitrogen pollution — that’s not an optional problem,” she said. “It is central to the success of our region and the quality of life for everyone here.”
In 2021, the Conservation Law Foundation sued the Department of Environmental Protection for failing to limit nitrogen pollution on Cape Cod. That lawsuit appears to be advancing rulemaking — the foundation last year agreed to pause the litigation while the agency drafts new nitrogen regulations.
Michaud and McDonald have accused the agency of working with special interests and ignoring the needs of communities. While the agency has met with communities, including Dartmouth, local officials are questioning why they weren’t included on the nitrogen-sensitive areas subcommittee, a sounding board for the agency where Petersen and Gottlieb served.
When Michaud asked the agency who was on that committee, they told him to file a public record request. After Michaud submitted his application, it took months and multiple orders from the Massachusetts Secretary of State for the agency to finally release the list.
Subcommittee members consisted primarily of agency employees, environmentalists, and representatives from real estate and engineering firms. They also included State Senator Julian Cyr, representing the Cape and Islands, and representatives from the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.
No cities were represented on the subcommittee. Michaud and McDonald said they believe the agency designed it that way on purpose.
“You have earned my distrust,” Michaud said. “And that’s pretty bad that our top environmental protection agency in the Commonwealth has acted in such a covert way with special interests and has shut out real interest groups.”
McDonald said he believes the agency knew municipalities would push back and they didn’t want to hear it.
“You’re not doing this in good faith,” he said. “The lack of transparency, the lack of good faith, the lack of concern for the Commonwealth communities and the territories they serve is abysmal.”
In a statement to The Light, State Senator Mark Montigny, representing Bristol and Plymouth 2nd District, said membership of the committee “is undoubtedly a public record which should be made readily available”. Montigny expressed disappointment that communities did not play a bigger role in the rulemaking process and said the agency should slow down the process or start over.
“It’s no secret that nitrogen pollution poses a very real and serious threat to the health of our waterways and surrounding habitats, but we need to find a more balanced approach to addressing the problem,” the statement said.
A spokesman for the agency declined requests to interview officials and was unable to respond to emailed questions in time for this report.
The agency will accept written comments on the regulations by January 30. She will also hold two other informational sessions, one taking place virtually on Tuesday and another on Wednesday at UMass Dartmouth. Two public hearings will follow later in the month.
More information on how to comment and attend the meetings is available on the Agency’s website.
Michaud hopes residents will take the opportunity to make their voices heard.
“The only way we’re going to change all this is if people get angry and speak up,” he told a Dartmouth Select board meeting earlier this month. “If people don’t come out and scorch them, they’re going to use that as a sign that it’s all over.”
Email Grace Ferguson at [email protected]
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