Complaint No Cause for Alarm in Falmouth
By: Elise R. Hugus
If the complaint filed against the US Environmental Protection Agency this week by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Coalition for Buzzards Bay was a wake-up call for wastewater regulators, the alarm was already sounding in Falmouth.
Although the town has yet to finalize its comprehensive wastewater management plan (CWMP), it is well on the way toward developing a strategy for reducing the nitrogen loading to sensitive coastal ponds, particularly those south of Route 28 in East Falmouth, said Gerald C. Potamis, the Falmouth wastewater superintendent.
For this reason, Mr. Potamis said the pending lawsuit is not likely to have a big impact on Falmouth. If successful, the legal action could give the county more authority to spur towns that do not have a wastewater management plan in the works to clean up their estuaries, he said.
If a judge finds that septic systems can be considered pollution “point sources,” that could give the EPA more oversight as to how wastewater is managed, he added.
The plaintiffs might have a good case for defining septic systems, stormwater systems, and wastewater treatment plumes as point sources, said Christopher Neill, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory and president of the Falmouth Association Concerned with Estuaries and Saltponds (FACES).
“Clearly there are pipes and leaching points involved. They do [create discharge] from defined sources, which [is] traceable from a defined source to estuaries,” he said.
“It makes sense in a lot of ways to more tightly manage what comes out of septics. If anywhere, we on Cape Cod should realize the things you throw in the groundwater come back to haunt you.”
Nitrogen is not the only harmful substance discharged from septic tanks and stormwater drains, Dr. Neill said.
Pharmaceuticals and other “emerging contaminants of concern” are not yet regulated, but may also require treatment in the future, he said.
But greater EPA oversight does not mean that environmental agents will start lurking around backyard septic tanks, testing for high levels of nitrogen and other chemicals, said Peter F. Boyer, vice chairman of the committee charged with reviewing Falmouth’s CWMP.
A lawsuit could drive the EPA to take action, said Mr. Boyer. Recognition of the impacts of nitrogen—the majority of which emanates from septics systems, stormwater systems, and plumes from wastewater treatment facilities—could mean that the EPA will allocate federal funds to clean up coastal waterways, Mr. Boyer said.
“This is not a regulatory sledgehammer, but instead, intended to spring money,” Mr. Boyer said.
“We’d love to have that kind of financial assistance, depending on what strings are attached. One thing that’s a categoric preference for Falmouth’s wastewater project is that we’d love to spend other people’s money.”
Just how that money could be spent is still up for debate. Representative Matthew C. Patrick (D-Falmouth), an opponent of building a centralized sewer system in Falmouth due to the estimated $400 to $650 million price tag, said the lawsuit could put more focus on “innovative and alternative” treatment options.
If the timetable for communities to clean up their estuaries is pushed up, alternative systems can be installed faster than sewer mains and a centralized treatment facility can be built, Rep. Patrick said.
“We have evidence from ‘citizen scientists’ in Orleans that the input of nitrogen from septic tanks [to estuaries] is very small. If you sewer the area, it wouldn’t have any impact,” he said.
“We’re talking about a lot of money but it might not make any difference. It’s important that we’re sure of the science before we invest billions.”
While it is still far from certain how the nitrogen should be removed, Dr. Neill said, including septic tanks as sources of pollution in the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) assessments could mean that Falmouth’s wastewater management plan would include a schedule for meeting the TMDLs for more of the town’s coastal ponds.
“Clearly the town will have to have a strategy for figuring out what to do with all the septics, not just the ones in East Falmouth,” said Dr. Neill.
“What it would do is push communities on Cape Cod to collect wastewater in a more centralized fashion. I’m not saying a big pipe sewer system. I’m saying more rigorous treatment.”
The plaintiff’s claim that the EPA was negligent in approving TMDLs for 13 Cape estuaries without taking the impacts of climate change into account is “a sound approach,” said Dr. Neill. A wider margin of error would leave a buffer for nitrogen loads that could increase as sea level rises, leading to increased risk of flooded wetlands—as well as storm drains and sewers.
“I’m concerned about the degree to which towns are trying to cut infrastructure planning very close. They’re cutting it close because it’s cheaper, but in the long run, they may end up spending a huge amount of money and not solving the problem,” he said.
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