Tisbury board of health nitrogen regs stir concerns

A public hearing on a proposal to require homeowners to install costly new nitrogen-treatment systems raised considerable discussion Tuesday.

The Tisbury board of health unanimously approved their nitrogen regulations for the Lagoon Pond and Lake Tashmoo watersheds, requiring property owners to install enhanced denitrification systems. Lake Tashmoo, shown here. — Nelson Sigelman

The Tisbury board of health presented its new draft of proposed nitrogen regulations for the Lake Tashmoo and Lagoon Pond watersheds to a roomful of people, many of whom would be affected by the changes, at public hearing Tuesday night. About 50 people attended the meeting in the Emergency Services Facility at which many people voiced their concerns and opposition to costly regulations.

The proposal would require property owners in the two watersheds who meet one of four specific triggers to install advanced septic systems to reduce nitrogen that could cost as much as $22,000 to install and up to $2,000 annually to maintain, based on industry expert estimates.

Following the meeting, Jeffrey Pratt, board of health chairman, told The Times the board plans to meet in the next couple of weeks to discuss and “possibly take a vote” on the regulations, which would then go into effect. He said the board of health has no plans to present the regulations for a town vote.

System triggers

Advanced septic systems are intended to remove a larger amount of nitrogen than a standard Title V septic system. The new regulations require “on-site denitrification wastewater disposal technology that is intended to meet a nitrogen groundwater discharge standard of not more than 19 milligrams per liter.”

One of four triggers would require a property owner to install the new technology: a new wastewater treatment system is required to serve a property (i.e., new construction); a property’s existing wastewater treatment system fails and replacement is necessary, as determined by the board of health; a property’s existing wastewater treatment system capacity is insufficient to handle any proposed additional development, as determined by the board of health; and a property is transferred to another owner and, based on a septic-system inspection, the board of health determines that a new system or system upgrade is necessary.

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s database, there are 808 septic systems in the Lagoon Pond watershed and 1,058 in the Lake Tashmoo watershed.

A health issue

Mr. Pratt was joined by his fellow board members Michael Loberg and Malcolm Boyd at the head of the room. Also in attendance were Maura Valley, health agent, and Joan Malkin of Chilmark, who was acting as an unpaid consultant to the board of health in the drafting of the regulations.

Ms. Malkin, a retired lawyer, is chairman of the MVC planning and economic development committee, a member of the Chilmark planning board and conservation commission, and vice president of the Vineyard Conservation Society.

The hearing began with a lengthy presentation by Mr. Loberg similar to previous hearings, in which he relied heavily on data driven by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) and reports from Florida and the Chesapeake Bay.

“We still believe that it’s a health issue,” Mr. Loberg said. “We still believe that there’s too much nitrogen entering our estuaries, that if you get too much of it that it starves the pond of oxygen, which can result in harmful algae blooms. Eventually, now, it provides a present danger to aquatic life and an emerging danger to human health and our way of life.”

The reaction of many attendees to the data was also similar: blank stares, grumbling, shaking heads, and raised hands.

Ms. Valley provided an updated list of systems the board has approved. An earlier draft listed 11 systems. The latest draft now has three approved systems for general use: Generic recirculating sand filters, RUCK, and Microfast. Also on the list are systems under “emerging technologies” and “piloting use” — all new technologies that have not been thoroughly tested. The board said they would recognize composting toilets, too.

Mr. Loberg called these systems “revolutionary,” and said that he hoped to have them in the ground by next spring and summer. They were just one tool, like sewering and permeable reactive barriers, to reduce nitrogen, he said.

“The science of it is to get the tools, and then determine the most economic mix of deployment,” he said.

On the topic of sewer districts, Mr. Pratt said the sewer board committee was going to start coming up with a plan to see what areas of the town would be able to be part of those districts.

However, Melinda Loberg, chairman of the Tisbury board of selectmen, a member of the wastewater committee and the wife of Mr. Loberg, said it was more complicated than that.

“Some of these fragile areas, they are really on the perimeter of the towns and the existing wastewater plant,” Ms. Loberg said. “So the cost, to sewer these remote or more rural areas of the town, is so much more prohibitive than it would be to address it through existing onsite systems. Especially these systems designed with the technology to reduce nitrogen in much more significant ways.”

‘That’s crap’

Residents raised a number of concerns, cost being a primary one. Ms. Valley told Islanders that the cost of advanced systems could be put into a homeowner’s mortgage and that the town had low-income loans available.

What Ms. Valley and the board of health could not answer was the cost of each individual system they had approved. She estimated that an advanced system cost $10,000 to $12,000 more than a Title V system.

“We have not done a study of what each individual system costs,” Ms. Valley said.

Mr. Loberg referenced out-of-state reports and said their cost estimates were around $20,000. Many residents moaned in their seats.

George Balco, a member of the town finance committee who lives on the Mink Meadows Golf Course near Lake Tashmoo, said he strongly opposed the board’s proposal.

“The board of health and others are trying to hang a guillotine over my head and the head of my children and the head of my grandchildren and telling me that one little misstep and one little change and boom, a financial guillotine falls right down on me,” Mr. Balco said.

The debate continued through the evening. Civil engineer Doug Dowling of Vineyard Haven took issue with the board trying to push pilot systems on homeowners. The average homeowner couldn’t put a pilot system in their yard because if it ended up not working, they’d have to dig it out and replace it. He said it was the board’s responsibility to test the pilots.

“If I’m going to build a system, I’m going to build a system that works, that’s less maintenance, and that’s already approved by the state,” Mr. Dowling said.

Mr. Loberg said that the pilots would eventually be approved for general use, but residents said he couldn’t be certain of that.

“You’re pushing like a salesman,” Mr. Dowling said.

Tom Pachico, retired Tisbury health agent, said that he has had a Waterloo biofilter system for 10 years, and it’s still considered provisional. Mr. Pachico suggested the town dredge the ponds.

“Have you ever looked at maybe dredging out the middle of Lagoon Pond and Lake Tashmoo, that’s just nothing but dead and putrefied seaweed and leaves and other debris that are huge sources of nitrogen?” Mr. Pachico asked. “That I haven’t seen on one single slide. You want some immediate removal of nitrogen? Dredge the ponds. You keep saying about 80 percent is from septic. That’s crap. You can make up numbers and pull them out of the air.”

Charles Flathers, also of Vineyard Haven, asked if the board was asking homeowners to risk putting in a system that was not certified.

Mr. Pratt wanted to make sure he understood the question: “You’re asking why are we putting in a regulation for a technology that may fail?”

Mr. Flathers said that was exactly what he was asking, and Mr. Pratt said he was going to move on with the discussion.

“Why are you?” Mr. Flathers pressed the board. Everyone laughed, but the board provided no answer to the question.

Support on the pond

Doug Reece, president of the Lagoon Pond Association, was the lone resident who spoke in favor of the board’s regulations. He said the association supported them “100 percent,” and that he thought other towns would follow suit if they passed the regulations.

Along with cost concerns and issues with system uncertainty, several residents told the board that they should identify the sewer districts before imposing the regulations. They also asked about Oak Bluffs share of the watershed. Ms. Loberg told residents that the town of Tisbury was working with Oak Bluffs on the issue.

Mr. Pratt expressed his frustration with residents “bashing” the proposals. “When does this circle stop and the actual process of lowering the nitrogen load begin?” he asked.

Victor Capoccia of Vineyard Haven said that the inconsistencies with the regulations would hinder what the board sought to accomplish. “It’s going to produce more reaction and opposition to potentially a very worthy goal,” Mr. Capoccia said.