Test program to trim nitrogen in Tisbury watersheds

Grant from state Clean Energy Center, plus town contribution, will pay for trial.

Tisbury residents will have a chance to test an alternative septic system, thanks to a $150,000 grant. The systems may reduce the amount of nitrogen released to places like Lake Tashmoo. — Tim Johnson

As many as 10 property owners in Tisbury will be able to test a new septic system component in an effort to reduce the amount of nitrogen released into Lake Tashmoo and Lagoon Pond watersheds.

The town, with its partner CES Clean Water, the designer of an alternative septic system called NitROE, has received a $150,000 grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) to install 10 systems. MassCEC is a state agency whose goal is “accelerating the success of clean energy technologies.” The total cost of the pilot project is $257,000. The town will need to kick in $28,000 of in-kind services, for monitoring and testing, with the rest of the money coming from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, CES Clean Water, and pond associations. The cost for individual homeowners in the pilot is just $500 apiece.

The NitROE system includes the installation of a separate 1,500-gallon tank between a Title V septic tank and a leaching field, according to John Smith, an Edgartown resident and a partner in CES Clean Water. Inside that concrete tank are two separate chambers, one filled with rocks that aerate the liquid, and a second that contains wood chips. The first chamber takes organic nitrogen and ammonia and turns it to nitrate, and the second chamber turns the nitrate into nitrogen gas that is released harmlessly and without any additional odor into the atmosphere, Mr. Smith explained.

“The NitROE box is meant to complement or supplement the existing tank system, not replace it,” he said. “The focus is on nitrogen removal.”

Mr. Smith first met Tisbury officials at a meeting in February, and moved quickly with the aid of officials from Tisbury and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) to find the state grant. The grant award last week began the search to find properties where the systems could be installed, and then to begin the permitting process.

“This is exciting,” said Melinda Loberg, a town selectman who has worked on wastewater solutions for the town. “It’s more promising than anything else we’ve looked at.”

Most other solutions that remove nitrogen come at significantly higher costs per pound of nitrogen removed. “The race is on, in a way,” Ms. Loberg said. “Our goal in applying for this grant is to test it and bring another technology to the table.”

That’s what MassCEC saw in the project also, said Michael Murphy, MassCEC’s director of wastewater innovation. “This technology seems closer to commercialization than others that we’ve seen,” Mr. Murphy said. That made it attractive for the grant.

Having George Heufelder of the Massachusetts Alternative Septic Test Center in Barnstable County on board as a consultant was also a plus, Mr. Murphy said.

In a separate test, two Tisbury homeowners will have an opportunity to test Mr. Heufelder’s so-called “layer cake” septic systems, Michael Loberg, a member of the Tisbury board of health and Ms. Loberg’s husband, told the Times. Mr. Heufelder has tested his system and the CES Clean Water NitROE systems, and both have been effective at reducing the amount of nitrogen released by septic systems.

“We’re trying to solve a huge problem that scares the hell out of us, and we don’t have the right tool kit,” said Mr. Loberg. The town hopes that the CES Clean Water technology will furnish that tool kit for homeowners at a price that isn’t cost-prohibitive.

Regulations set by the town’s board of health require alternative systems that provide denitrification in new construction and when septic systems fail in the watershed areas, among other triggers.

The town is looking for a way to remove 11,000 pounds of nitrogen from the affected watersheds each year, based on reports by the Department of Environmental Protection, the Massachusetts Estuaries Project and Wright-Pierce, an engineering firm that studied wastewater issues for the MVC. The nitrates add to “undesirable algal and aquatic plant growth, thus threatening public health, destroying wildlife habitat, and degrading waters for shellfishing, recreation, and other public uses,” according to the grant application.

The NitROE systems, if they work the way they have in testing, will reduce nitrogen levels to five parts per million, Mr. Loberg said. Eventually 1,000 households, or about two-thirds of the septic systems in the watershed, could use this technology, he said.

If NitROE doesn’t work in the field, the homeowners will still have Title V systems operating, Mr. Loberg said. “We’re going to get pretty good data,” he said. “My bet is that they’re going to work.”

Mr. Smith is confident, too. “It uses proven, true, and accepted concepts in wastewater treatment,” he said. “We’ve taken those same proven and demonstrated processes and engineered them in an innovative way to be achieved in the NitROE box. Other larger systems use the same biochemical microbial processes.”

If it does work, town leaders will likely ask voters for funds to help homeowners pay for the capital costs of putting in the systems while funding the testing and monitoring, Mr. Loberg said. It would be similar to the way municipal sewer systems are funded, with taxpayers sharing some of the costs, he said.

Officials hope to get the first tanks for the pilot program installed by the end of June or early July, Mr. Murphy said. The rest should be permitted and installed by the fall, he said.

Maura Valley, the town’s health agent, is taking requests from people willing to pilot the program now. The health department will review sites to make sure there is room in the existing system for a NitROE box. Call Ms. Valley at 508-696-4291.

Money for the grant came from the water innovation trust, which was created in 2014 as part of an environmental bond bill, Mr. Murphy said.

“We go into these things optimistic,” Mr. Murphy said. “This is a big challenge for both the Vineyard and the Cape. It’s a big problem.”

To possibly be part of the solution is something that excites Mr. Smith. “To be able to help in a small way the nitrogen issue, something that can be implemented at an affordable cost, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else,” he said.