Late in 2022, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) issued draft amendments to the Title 5 regulations. These are the rules that govern siting, construction, upgrade and expansion of septic systems in MA. The changes are intended to better protect estuaries and embayments from nitrogen pollution, particularly on Cape Cod and potentially on the Islands and South Coast.
The Westport River Watershed Alliance (WRWA) has been studying the proposed new regulations carefully, working with the Town and participating in the review process. We want to let you know what we’ve learned and what we are doing.
First, WRWA applauds MassDEP for its effort to address nitrogen pollution from septics on the Cape and in other “Nitrogen Sensitive Areas” (NSAs). This is critical on the Cape where algae problems seriously impair many bodies of water. See the NY Times “A Toxic Stew on Cape Cod: Human Waste and Warming Water." Beyond the Cape, it is critical to reduce nitrogen levels in ponds, rivers and coastal waters where levels are higher than what’s acceptable for clean, healthy waters.
The Title 5 regulations pertain to septic systems. That is an area of MassDEP’s regulatory authority. The draft rules offer two options for meeting the nitrogen reduction goals.
Option 1 requires all property owners in the designated NSAs to upgrade their septic systems at a cost of $10-20,000 each within a five-year period to incorporate the “best available nitrogen reducing technology.” We believe Option 1 is totally infeasible for Westport. It would be excessively costly to property owners, impossible for the Board of Health to administer, and impractical given limited availability of installers and the technology. We also have concerns about the vagueness of the language in the draft regulations regarding “best available nitrogen-reducing technology.” We are seeking clarification on this requirement.
Option 2 allows a town or towns to apply to MassDEP for a “Watershed Permit.” The Permit would provide a 20-year time frame to create and implement an alternative plan to reduce nitrogen levels. The plan would have to result in the same nitrogen reduction that would have resulted under Option 1. Option 2 clearly allows for a more flexible and diverse set of actions to occur over a more manageable time period.
If adopted, the new regulations will immediately go into effect on Cape Cod. The Cape is MassDEP’s #1 concern. Other areas where nitrogen levels exceed MassDEP requirements may be designated Nitrogen Sensitive Areas at some point in the future and subject to the proposed regulations. Westport will likely be among those considered.
The Town of Westport and WRWA have worked hard in recent decades to reduce nitrogen loads in both branches of the Westport River. In the West Branch, the targeted threshold nitrogen concentrations determined by the standards in Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) have already been met, and in the East Branch they are very close to being met. We have urged MassDEP to incorporate an exemption procedure to allow flexibility for communities that are meeting the EPA requirements. MassDEP will require communities that choose Option 2 to achieve results as if all septic systems had been upgraded. We are asking MassDEP to allow flexibility and take Westport’s progress and current initiatives into account.
And, Westport’s current initiatives to attack nitrogen pollution are considerable! We should all be aware — and proud — of these efforts. They include:
The Board of Health now requires nitrogen reducing septic systems for all new construction since January of 2022.
The Board of Health has also required the upgrade of all cesspools to Title 5 compliant status by February 2026.
The Town offers 1% loans to low and moderate income homebuyers to install nitrogen reducing septic systems.
The sewer plan for Route 6 and nearby neighborhoods in densely populated areas of North Westport is advancing to the final design phase, and a project manager has been hired.
An updated Targeted Integrated Water Management Plan has been prepared for the East Branch to bring it into EPA compliance.
The Westport Land Conservation Trust and its partners have been very active in protecting environmentally sensitive properties from development to reduce future nitrogen loading.
While we agree with MassDEP’s goals, we have a number of concerns about details of their proposal and are working to get resolution. Implementation details need clarification, and some aspects of the draft regulations may not be pertinent for Westport. Our greatest concern, however, is financial: who is to pay for either the upgrades to all septic systems in town or, more likely, the planning and the initiatives Westport might pursue under Option 2. WRWA is committed to working with Town and State officials in the hopes that these costs are not unfairly borne by a minority of individuals. Accordingly, we are communicating with MassDEP about our concerns and we will keep you informed. Meanwhile, we encourage you to attend the public information sessions MassDEP is hosting to learn more and feel free to send your thoughts to them prior to the January 30th, 5 p.m deadline for public comment. For more information and links to information sessions and public comment input visit: https://www.mass.gov/regulations/310-CMR-15000-septic-systems-title-5
For more information on causes of nitrogen pollution and why it is of concern, see links here to some good info source(s).