Opinion: What’s up with DEP’s proposed septic system rule regarding nitrogen pollution?

Jan 23, 2023

To the editor:

If you’ve been watching the local press over the past two weeks, you’ve seen a lot of articles about proposed changes to Title 5 septic system rules by the MA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). While this debate is far from over, I want to share my perspective with our members and make it clear where the Buzzards Bay Coalition stands on the issue.

A lot of the concern I’ve heard raised by local officials around these proposed regulations are focused on the infeasibility of this “upgrade all septics in five years” option. 

We agree with much of that sentiment. 

In DEP’s desire to create a ‘stick’ to motivate towns, they’ve proposed something that not only puts all of the financial burden on homeowners, but is actually impossible to implement and insufficient to address the problem even if it could be accomplished. Which it can’t. 

I hope that we’ll see that aspect of the proposal deeply altered in whatever DEP finally implements.

But in the criticism of DEP’s proposal, I hear little about why developing town-driven Watershed Management Plans and spending the next 20 years implementing them to clean up our waters is not a good idea. 

Under the proposed DEP regulations, all Watershed Management Plans are to be developed at the town level and even must be approved by Town Meeting. It’s not a state ordered plan, it will be local residents working together to come up with the best approach to the problem. 

It’s important to remember that DEP’s proposed regulations are just that – a proposal. They are accepting public comments until January 30 and I expect that the final outcome will be strongly influenced by what they’re hearing.

Like all things political it seems that everyone wants a ‘You for it, or you against it?’ position for everything. 

In a nutshell, here’s what the Buzzards Bay Coalition will be telling them:

We are opposed to the stick that all septic systems be upgraded to DeNitrifying Technology within five years as unworkable and not the most effective way to reduce nitrogen in all watersheds. 

Action is needed and we maintain that a Watershed Plan is the right approach. We support town-based Watershed Management Planning and a 20-year time horizon to implement needed nitrogen pollution reductions. Our coastal waters have suffered for too long. 

DEP needs to do a lot more to expand financing assistance to towns and homeowners to implement sewer expansions, septic system upgrades and other nitrogen reduction actions. 

We will not restore our waters without action to address nitrogen pollution from septic systems. Let’s use the awareness of the problem that is being generated by DEP’s proposed regulations to come together to clean up our bays. It’s not something that we can afford to put off forever.

Mark Rasmussen,

President — Buzzards Bay Coalition