Tisbury board of health takes action on sanitation issue

Health agent sets dates for enactment of daily fine and condemnation of property.

Malcolm Boyd, board of health clerk, and health agent Maura Valley discuss Richard Washington’s failed septic tank. — Lucas Thors

For three years, the Tisbury board of health has sent letters to Richard Washington insisting he address his failed septic system.

After hearing from Washington’s representation, Anna Edey, at a meeting Tuesday, board members decided they would set definitive dates to enact a $100 daily fine and eventually discuss condemning the property.

Health agent Maura Valley set the dates, which the board unanimously accepted. If Washington does not have a new system in the ground by Dec. 17, a $100 daily fine will be levied against him starting the following day. If Washington’s new septic is not up and running by the Jan. 8 board of health meeting, the board will begin discussing options to condemn the property as unfit for human habitation.

Edey said in her presentation that her client’s septic has not “failed in any significant way over these years — no overflows outside, no backed-up plumbing inside.”

Valley said the board is bound to uphold Title 5 standards and meet state code — Washington’s system does not.

“Under Title 5, this is a failed system that needs to be upgraded,” Valley said. She also mentioned the issue of Washington’s property being located in the watershed, making it necessary for additional measures to be taken to reduce pollution and leaching.

Edey reiterated her point of the Title 5 system being ineffective in reducing the spread of nitrogen and other pollutants.

Washington’s septic currently consists of one tank and two leaching pits, which are overflowing and causing the severe sanitation issue, according to Valley. Edey said a new Title 5 system would create “five to 10 times more pollution” than Washington’s original system.

According to Edey, Washington recently left for a long vacation, so Valley said she would attempt to contact him via email to notify him of the board’s decision.

Edey is an author of two books about sustainable living. One of the books, “Green Light at the End of the Tunnel: Learning the Art of Living Well Without Causing Harm to Our Planet or Ourselves,” describes sustainable alternatives to Title 5 septic systems, which she says are confirmed to produce some 80 percent of local nitrogen pollution.

“By now, we all know that excess nitrogen is the cause of massive algae infestations that are killing our ponds,” Edey said. “We are also increasingly learning about other serious problems that they cause: viruses, antibiotics, toxins, and hormones leach untreated through Title 5 systems.”

According to the Code of Massachusetts Regulations, Edey said the Title 5 system is in violation of multiple environmental protection laws. “Massachusetts state law requires safe, nonpolluting wastewater management to provide for the protection of public health, safety, welfare, and the environment,” she said. “New Title 5 systems are not safe, and they do cause pollution.” Edey said state law also requires the removal of nutrient pollutants (especially nitrogen) from wastewater.

In order to address Edey’s concerns, Valley said the only option would be to put in an advanced treatment system that would cost Washington substantially more to construct than a normal Title 5 system. Advanced treatment systems remove up to 90 percent of wastewater pollutants such as nitrogen and other trace organic substances before they can leach through the ground.

“We are allowing Mr. Washington to put in a Title 5 system because it would be cost-prohibitive for him to replace his septic with advanced treatment,” Valley said.

“Unless of course, you are doing it with wood chips,” Edey responded. “That is far less expensive than the Nitrex systems.”

Edey talks about this in her book; for decades, she has filtered her wastewater through her own wood-chip system.

Vice chairman Jeff Pratt reminded Edey that the board is mandated by the state to uphold Title 5, even if there is scientific evidence proving that Title 5 is harming the local ecology. He said he could see the issue being grounds for a higher level of legal system to delve into. “I could see a case like this, challenging a law that is asking people to install systems that are a detriment to the ecology, as opposed to benefiting it,” Pratt said. “It could be stated that the data used to approve the Title 5 came from industry standards, and therefore is biased against the science that could prove it otherwise.”

Pratt asked Edey if she has a legitimate alternative to the Title 5 system that could be permitted or used in a pilot program.

“I have tried to go through the Department of Environmental Protection [DEP], and they made it very hard for me to establish a pilot program,” Edey said.

Since Edey’s alternative wood-chip system is not approved by the state, Pratt said the board could not approve it for Washington either.