The illegal pumping of as much as 21,000 gallons per day of groundwater from Mansion House Inn in Vineyard Haven into the town’s wastewater treatment plant was briefly discussed Wednesday afternoon by the sewer advisory board.
While the illegal discharge has since been fixed, and that water diverted to a leaching field at the 9 Main St. hotel, the town still has little idea how long the illegal pumping was taking place, according to a consultant for the town.
Robert Rafferty, a principal with Environmental Partners, told the board his company hasn’t looked at the issue since mid-December, when the hotel had a leaching field installed. There was an indication that despite some strong comments from select board chair Jim Rogers at the time that the town would someday seek restitution from Mansion House, post-pandemic, there may be little the town can do.
“Your regulations had nothing in them for any recourse that the wastewater department has on that,” Rafferty said during the Zoom meeting. State regulations are clear that groundwater and stormwater runoff are not permitted in wastewater treatment systems. “Nothing in [the regulations] says now what do you do about it,” Rafferty added.
In an email to The Times, town administrator Jay Grande said he doesn’t consider that the end of it. “I believe this obviously requires legal review by the town attorney as to the interpretation and opinion provided to the sewer advisory board,” he wrote. “I do not hold that there is no recourse as to this matter concerning the illicit connection. I had requested from wastewater and Environmental Partners, as you know, an estimate on flows and proposal for back charges for what could be validated actuals or estimates with sewer advisory board, and then have [the] town attorney assist with the legalities of the demand for payment of those charges, and then have on [the] select board agenda for action. I am disappointed with the finding that the wastewater regulations as a mechanism are lacking. But I do not believe this is a settled matter that can be characterized as closed at this time.”
The illegal flow was discovered last May by then wastewater superintendent David Thompson. Within two months of blowing the whistle on the illegal hookup, Thompson was fired by the town, which claimed he failed to meet “Tisbury standards of conduct, attendance, and job performance” during his probationary period.
Thompson detected the illegal flow because Mansion House continued to pump large amounts of flow — estimated at 15,000 gallons per day at the time — despite being closed by the ongoing pandemic.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Rafferty had just gotten through giving a detailed accounting of how close the town system is to its capacity, ahead of filing a permit to expand from 104,000 to 139,000 gallons of flow per day when the sewer plant is expanded. Based on an analysis of 2019 numbers, because the flow numbers during the pandemic are down 28 to 30 percent, Rafferty said the town has about 7,000 in excess gallons of flow available for new hookups. He cautioned that the advisory board should recommend allotting only about 3,500 gallons of that excess, and couldn’t yet factor in if the Mansion House gives the town even more leeway. “There’s no way of knowing when it started, so we can’t make any assumptions there,” Rafferty said.
Josh Goldstein, a co-owner of the Mansion House and a member of the sewer advisory committee, did not comment during the brief discussion.
Christina Colarusso, chair of the committee and wastewater operator at Martha’s Vineyard Airport, offered some interesting perspective to quantify just how much flow the Mansion House was doing per day. “For those that aren’t so familiar, that amount of flow is more than my whole wastewater plant takes most days of the year,” she said.
The summer season may give a more clear picture of just how much flow the town has, because the Mansion House is no longer sending groundwater to the plant, Rafferty said. “It’s just a matter of seeing what happens in August when you have your peak flows, and if it really had an impact or not,” he said.
Rafferty said the permit for the expansion will be filed next week, and the town expects to hear from the state Department of Environmental Protection in September.
In other business, the sewer advisory board heard from two property owners interested in tying into the system.
Xerxes Agassipour, who owns a residential building at 52 William St., asked about the possibility of tying it into the town’s sewer system with 1,100 gallons of flow, rather than expanding the property’s septic system. After a lengthy discussion about the need for such a hookup to go before town meeting voters because it was not part of the original sewer district, Agassipour, who hopes to add bedrooms to the five apartments, said he will look into alternatives first.
Meanwhile, Brook Katzen, who is proposing a mixed-use housing and commercial building on the property where he now operates a miniature golf course on State Road, went before the board to inform them about his idea to use both onsite septic and tie into the town’s expanded system on State Road.
Katzen’s proposal, which still faces some significant permitting hurdles, seeks 54 rental apartments and more than 70 bedrooms at the 386 State Road site. The first floor would house 2,000 square feet of commercial space.
Katzen said the project would have 9,400 gallons of flow per day, and he’s looking to get a 3,300-gallon allotment for the municipal system.
Goldstein pointed out that the expansion is for existing businesses and residential housing in the State Road district, but the town has not yet decided whether those properties will be required to tie in. “There is no extra flow in the system as it’s designed,” he said. “I want to be clear on that.”
Katzen said the sewer expansion, projected for completion in 2023, and his project are on the same timeline.
“I think for any decision for us today is the cart before the horse. There are many planning steps in line for a project of this impact,” sewer board member Jeff Pratt said.
Katzen said he wasn’t seeking a decision, but instead was just informing the board of the project and his idea of tying in.
Pratt also suggested that Katzen meet separately with wastewater superintendent Jared Meader and Rafferty to discuss the concept of splitting the flow from the project between onsite and the town system.
Katzen will be submitting the project to the zoning board next week, and it will ultimately be referred to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact.