Oak Bluffs breaks ground on wastewater upgrades

Goal is to reduce harmful nitrogen flow and allow more development.


Oak Bluffs officials say a major upgrade of the town’s wastewater treatment facility is intended to reduce the flow of nitrogen and other nutrients that can cause algae blooms in Island ponds. 

Town officials and construction contractors held a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, May 9, at the wastewater treatment facility at 17 Pennsylvania Ave. The work began in early April, and is expected to last two years.

Gail Barmakian, who chairs the Oak Bluffs select board and the town’s wastewater commission, said the project is a “milestone to cleaning up our ponds.” 

The moment brought a celebratory mood for those present as shovels dug into the soil. “I’m so pleased to be here today,” former Oak Bluffs wastewater commissioner Hans von Steiger said; he had previously worked for years on this effort.

The upgrades are part of the town’s comprehensive wastewater management plan, an endeavor meant to reduce the amount of nitrogen that flows into watersheds like Lagoon Pond. The nutrient can cause excessive growth of aquatic plants, and algae blooms, which can be harmful to people and pets. 

The entire Oak Bluffs wastewater management plan is expected to cost $105 million to the town and homeowners over 30 years, according to the GHD Group, an engineering company involved in the project. Much of the cost will likely fall on homeowners, since many will need to upgrade private septic systems.

GHD Group has said homeowners may need to pay up to $2,000 a year during the lifetime of the project. Upgrading a septic system to alternative systems that reduce the release of nitrogen can cost up to $45,000.

The town would pay about $1 million a year.

Patrick Hickey, the Oak Bluffs wastewater facilities manager, said the construction upgrades are on schedule and on budget. He said construction will pause during the summer, due to supply-chain concerns and seasonal rent spikes. 

The contractors are staying on the Island, but will leave in June, before returning in the fall. “This is the first step,” he said. 

The town has borrowed $26 million, which Oak Bluffs voters approved at town meeting two years ago. Voters last month approved borrowing an additional $1.6 million for the project.

A sign outside the treatment facility says the project will cost just under $21 million. Oak Bluffs town administrator Deborah Potter told The Times that this reflected the contract bid amount for New Hampshire–based Waterline Industries Corporation’s work to upgrade the nitrogen removal. 

Additional construction services will cost $3.495 million, utility work will cost $100,000, and $1.408 million has been set aside in a contingency fund. 

The town was awarded a $4.3 million grant from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust, which received federal funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, to cover a portion of the borrowed amount in January, and is looking for other sources of funding as well.

During the groundbreaking, Hickey showed the work that was underway. In an excavated area behind the wastewater department building, a flow distribution box was being built. The device will receive water from the pump stations and distribute it to tanks that will allow a consistent flow of treated wastewater, rather than high and low flows through the day. 

Ultimately, the facility will be upgraded to have a membrane bioreactor, or MBR, system, which separates solids and liquids with microscreens before discharging treated effluent into the environment. 

The older plant will continue to operate while the upgrade construction takes place, in case the startup of the new facility goes awry, or further testing is needed, and simply as a backup.

Oak Bluffs wastewater commissioner Cassandra Bowler said that helping the environment is the primary focus of the project, but that the upgrades also will help the town treat more wastewater produced by residents and businesses.

Bowler said that will help several affordable housing projects that are planned, like the Southern Tier development. It is slated to have 60 housing units that may need to connect to the town sewer system. 

“You can’t do much without infrastructure,” she said. 

Once the new facility opens, the wastewater flow will increase from 250,000 gallons per day to 400,000 gallons per day, according to Hickey. 

Hickey said the upgrades are intended to accommodate the town’s expected population growth. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oak Bluffs had 5,329 residents in 2020. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s 2023 statistical profile of the Island projects that Oak Bluffs will have a population of 6,507 by 2040.