Station Menemsha septic system overtaxed, installer says

The system it replaced may have sent unchlorinated septage into water bodies.

The installer of the septic system at Station Menemsha says the system may not be big enough to handle the job. -Rich Saltzberg

The troubled septic system at Station Menemsha may receive too much water and may not have been designed with enough capacity in mind, the system’s installer said. Scott Hartwell of the Stow company, Hartwell and Sons Inc., alleged the system designer “under engineered it or didn’t correctly calculate the water usage.”

Hartwell said what ails the septic system at the station is not a simple problem he could fix. 

The septic system at Station Menemsha has experienced high water alarms that have triggered water shutoffs. The system also backed up into a sink in the cellar of the station. Since March, no similar events have occurred, according to Petty Officer Nicole Groll, a spokesperson for Coast Guard First District Northeast. 

Hartwell said the new system, a Perc-Rite drip dispersal system, either needs to be transformed into a gravity system or needs to have capacity added onto it. 

In general, he said too much water is going into the system. 

A 2018 Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection permit issued for the system indicated a sewage flow of 1,114 gallons per day. However, the old system was designed for twice that, 2,200 gallons per day, according to a 2007 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency permit renewal document

Hartwell noted a number of people shower at the station and it has an active kitchen that uses a lot of water. He said the Perc-Rite system installed, despite the presence of grease traps, is “not compatible with a kitchen using grease.” Grease will eventually get into the system, he said. 

Chilmark board of health member Matt Poole, who said he saw some of the installation process, called Hartwell a “solid installer.” Poole said he doesn’t believe the system was overburdened and under-engineered. He suspects a mechanical problem is at play such as a faulty pump. 

Coastal Engineering Co. of Orleans designed the system, according to the Coast Guard. The firm’s president, John Bologna, didn’t respond to several voice messages seeking comment on the system. 

Engineer Bryan Allen, general manager of American Manufacturing Company, maker of the Perc-Rite system, said he wasn’t familiar with the installation at Station Menemsha. He described Perc-Rite systems as alternate systems for special conditions or areas. He also said backups and high water alarms could be caused by mechanical problems like a bad pump or control panel. Allen referred specific questions about the Station Menemsha system to Rob Samarian, general manager of Oakson in Gloucester, Perc-Rite distributer for New England. Samarian could not be reached for comment. 

Poole said Perc-Rite systems have been immensely helpful to towns like Rockport, which have unfavorable geology for traditional septic systems. He also said several Perc-Rite systems are in use on the Vineyard, including at a Martha’s Vineyard Bank property. 

The cause and long-term solution for the septic system continues to be investigated,” Groll wrote in an email. “A follow-up visit is planned once travel restrictions are lifted to determine whether water is leaking into the system. If there is an emergent issue we will respond to maintain the habitability of the facility.”

While Hartwell was working under a general contractor, Kelly Construction of Enfield, Conn., according to the Coast Guard, and doesn’t believe his work contributed to the failures the system is experiencing, he nevertheless felt besmirched. He described the situation as “not a good reflection” on his company. In 39 years of septic installation, he said he hasn’t had such a system failure. He also said the Coast Guard hasn’t reached out to him. 

Previous system had problems

The old system at the station may have been polluting a nearby Green Pond, a small body of fresh water as well as Menemsha Pond, a large body of salt water.

Hartwell noted a previous chlorination chamber meant to treat septage overflow “wasn’t working,” and the overflow was eventually making its way into Menemsha Pond. 

Poole said the chlorination chamber “hadn’t been looked after” and the board of health had been told to “bug off” by the Coast Guard when it probed the matter. 

Poole said effluent flowed from the Coast Guard system to Green Pond and from Green Pond into a channel leading to Menemsha Harbor and Menemsha Pond. 

The 2007 EPA document indicated back then discharges from the system hadn’t been “observed” since 1994.

“The wastewater is treated in septic tanks and sand filters, with the effluent collected and chlorinated prior to discharge,” the document states. “However, there have been no observed discharges from the treatment facility since a new treatment system was constructed in 1994. If the discharge from the treatment facility is active, it would flow into Green Pond, a small pond next to the USCG station, and travel a short distance (approximately 20 feet) to an outlet pipe that leads to Menemsha Creek. Menemsha Creek flows into Menemsha Basin, and then into Menemsha Bight, which is part of Vineyard Sound.” 

Groll previously told The Times “[t]he previous wastewater disposal system at Station Menemsha discharged treated wastewater to the adjacent on-site pond in accordance with applicable EPA and MassDEP permits.” 

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about the new system or the old system. 



  1. I am astounded at the stupidity of septic regulations.
    Ok– let me propose something that is so simple it will not even be considered by the well intentioned people that regulate this stuff. if you have too much water because of showers and kitchen use, why are they mixing thousands of gallons of that water with the toilet waste ? After all, it’s the solid waste that is flushed in a toilet that is the problem.
    let me propose an out of the box idea.. Why not have a holding tank that receives water from showers and sinks, and pump it out on the outgoing tide ? No fecal matter, just a little soap and an occasional food scrap going outbound into the ocean ?Keep the system to handle the poop separate.

    • Don, while toilets get most of it, there is fecal matter, among all kinds other yucky stuff, coming from the drains of our sinks, washing machines, and showers and tubs, especially if the household has babies, sick, or old people– or if the household did not hoard toilet paper during a pandemic. You do not want this water pumped into where people swim and fish. Where is the Clorox when we really need it?

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