ORLEANS — In recent years, the town has been marching down the field toward its goal of cleaning its waters. At next month's special town meeting, selectmen will ask voters to support grinding out a few more yards now to set up a full-scale attack on the end zone at annual town meeting in May.
Some members had higher ambitions for the Oct. 16 meeting, but with four positive votes required to put borrowing questions on the ballot, the board compromised Aug. 30 on a handful of smaller-scale initiatives.
Voters will be asked next month to support building a section of the collection system for the proposed downtown sewer system under Main Street between Routes 6A and 28. The small step forward was prompted by ongoing state department of transportation reconstruction of the two major intersections; when that work is finished, the pavement may not be dug up again for five years. That would delay the town's sewer project well into the next decade.
Contractor Lawrence-Lynch, which is doing the road work for the state, would install the hybrid gravity-low pressure system. An estimate for the job was expected by yesterday's (Sept. 6) selectmen's meeting, when the board was scheduled to approve a debt exclusion vote on the Oct. 24 special election ballot.
With a trio of decisions to make – on collection, treatment, and disposal of wastewater – selectmen were able to agree to ask town meeting for authority to negotiate a long-term lease with the state for land at Route 6's Exit 12 cloverleaf as a discharge site for effluent (treated wastewater). Others – the type of collection system and whether the town would process waste from septic systems as well as the sewer – were deferred. Also set aside was pursuit of either a design-bid-build or design-build-operate track for creating the system.
Meeting without the familiar cadre of consultants in a work session, the board heard positive news about the Exit 12 site from Selectman Alan McClennen, who guided Lt. Gov Karyn Polio and state Rep. Sarah Peake on a tour of the location. “She got right into this and understood the issues,” McClennen said of Polito. “My impression was that this is moving in a very positive way.”
Although he was one of four votes to support using the site (Selectman David Currier, who owns two businesses in the downtown area, is sitting out meetings on the first phase of the project to avoid a potential conflict of interest), Selectman Mark Mathison said two alternative sites (the transfer station and a nearby water tower location) recently brought to the board's attention by McClennen should be investigated by consultants. The board voted unanimously to have AECOM look into both additional sites.
A previous board of selectmen voted to discharge no treated wastewater into the Namskaket and Little Namskaket marshes, but some current members say the very low projected percentages of infiltration show a total ban isn't necessary.
“Our wastewater is flowing now through all our coastline and bays and estuaries,” Selectman Mefford Runyon said. “They all deserve our careful stewardship and care, but I'm not prepared to bestow special status on any of them. I think all the watersheds are part of what we need.”
Noting studies that showed the majority of effluent from the now-closed tri-town treatment plant “going under the marsh, not into it,” Selectman Jon Fuller said “a good rainy day puts more fresh water into the marsh than any treatment water. The last five-incher, probably a trillion gallons went into the marsh and there wasn't a perceptible change.”
Mathison said selectmen have to consider “that the board in the past has made a commitment that some people will now look as being unfulfilled, and that's going to cost votes. We can't afford to lose any of those votes.”
“Exit 12 is our first site, not our last site,” said McClennen. “We're working on other sites.” Earlier, he had said his “personal hope is that as we move ahead in phases we continue to find other disposal sites so what's collected and cleansed is discharged in different watersheds.”
The site at the back of the landfill is under the selectmen's control, but the board of water and sewer commissioners would have to give its approval for testing and any other subsequent work at the water tower site. The boards are already scheduled for an Oct. 4 meeting.
Selectmen were unable to move forward on AECOM's recommendation to go to 100 percent design for a hybrid gravity-low pressure collection system for the downtown area. The consultants identified that option after completing a 25 percent design of the system, which jibed with those from several other engineering firms over the last decades.
But Mathison said there's a perception among some in town “that the consultants are not unbiased. The concern is you hire a firm whose expertise is in building gravity systems and their recommendation is you build a gravity sewer system.” He said leaders can't ignore public interest in smaller cluster systems such as those in use at Shaw's and the Community of Jesus. “They work,” he said. “They're less expensive.”
Fuller said he doesn't believe small cluster systems are less expensive “in the long run. They may be less expensive to put in. At the Wequassett Inn (in Harwich), a third of their maintenance budget is for their wastewater treatment plant. They spent a lot of money after they put it in. It was required for their expansion.”
McClennen noted that “every small treatment plant needs a disposal site.” He said that a Cape Cod Commission study of various collection systems found that “a centralized system could remove nitrogen at the lowest cost per pound.” Downtown is particularly well-suited for a gravity system, McClennen said, because the grade changes from eight to 104 feet above sea level.
Noting that a gravity system “has the fewest possible moving parts,” Runyon said that, “in my perfect world, the sewer system goes into the ground and I never have to think about it again. I certainly hope I never have to be engaged in conversation about it again.”
“I don't dispute those kinds of things,” Mathison said, but expressed again his disappointment that the town's consultants had said completion of a 25 percent design could lead to a number of design-build-operate companies bringing competing visions of a system before the town. Recently, the board was told that d-b-o would not work in Orleans.
The town is trying to get out from under its approved comprehensive wastewater management plan, which would see 52 percent of the community sewered. Non-traditional approaches such as using oysters to remove nitrogen from ponds and installing permeable reactive barriers to contain pollutants could limit traditional sewering to less than 15 percent, but such methods are still being tested and have yet to be approved by regulators.
In short, Mathison argued, there are too many questions to be answered. “You're putting a train on a track and there are no sidings,” he said. “You keep throwing fuel into the boiler and the train keeps going faster and faster. I want to know where it's going and how much it's going to cost me before I get on that train.”
“We understand what the current cost is for downtown,” McClennen said. “The voters
by petition last time took Meetinghouse Pond off the table, so we know what the downtown system – collection, treatment and disposal – will cost. We don't know what non-traditionals will cost, but we do know a couple of things. If they don't work, we're looking at a project of $247 million, not $148.5, not $117 million. That scares the hell out of me.”
The board discussed having a consultant do a peer review of the plan to date. Selectmen planned to vote on remaining warrant articles for the Oct. 16 special town meeting last night.