Septage Treatment Stays In The Picture As Town Wrestles With Wastewater Issues

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Wastewater treatment

Selectmen, the board of health, and the finance committee joined members of the Orleans Water Quality Advisory Panel for a wide-ranging discussion July 11.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS Has the opportunity for a Lower Cape option for treating waste from septic systems come and gone? Not according to a 3-1 vote of the board of selectmen July 11 that reaffirmed the town's commitment to include a septage component in its planned wastewater treatment plant.

Selectman Mark Mathison, who voted against the measure, said haulers have changed their business model since the Tri-Town plant in Orleans closed in June 2016 and are taking septage from septic systems to Yarmouth for treatment. Other members of the board cited interest among haulers in a local option as well as the benefits of mingling the waste flows of septage and sewage for better operation of the Orleans treatment plant when it opens.

“We can't compete with somebody that's processing 28 million gallons a year,” Mathison said of the Yarmouth plant. In addition, “We're talking about cleaning up the water in town. Why would we want to bring someone else's nitrogen into Orleans when it can go somewhere else instead? If it comes from Orleans, why would we want to keep it here? We couldn't make this thing work when we were the only place on the Lower Cape. We couldn't keep up with the maintenance, modernization. We were losing money.”

Tom Parece of consultant firm AECOM said the septage add-on would require $500,000 in capital costs and annual operating and maintenance costs of $233,000. At 10 cents per gallon, the current rate at the Yarmouth plant, tipping fees in Orleans would bring in an estimated $600,000 to offset annual expenses. The new plant would have a higher level of treatment than Tri-Town, discharging effluent (treated wastewater) at 10 milligrams of nitrogen per liter versus 50.

The “market has been revised downward,” but “we do have projected revenue,” Selectman Kevin Galligan said. Further, “not everyone (in Orleans) will be sewered. I feel an obligation to the citizens to provide a local option. That's part of what they're paying their taxes for.”

Galligan said he had spoken to three Lower Cape haulers who wanted a local disposal option. “They said they're willing to pay higher prices because they're saving labor,” he said. “They can't get a hold of drivers, and this would save wear and tear on equipment.”

Selectman Alan McClennen said the numbers still made sense, even if the plant processes four million gallons per year rather than the projected six million. “You're covering your costs and getting $108,750 per year.. .and being extremely conservative on what the volume is,” he said. “If we do this right, we can begin to have an economic advantage to our septic tank owners. We may be able to give them discounts in certain parts of the year.”

Beyond the bottom line, McClennen noted, was the role the septage component played in winning state support for the town's overall water quality effort. “We have been living on the certificate,” he said. “If we take septage out of this, we have lost our environmental certificate and no longer qualify for zero-interest loans, at a net cost to us of $15 million.”

The selectmen's decision was part of an evening devoted to meeting with the board of health, finance committee, and Orleans Water Quality Advisory Panel on related issues, including the board of health's nutrient management regulations for septic systems and the draft betterment assessment bylaw that will determine who pays what for the sewer collection system (the treatment plant and disposal area will be paid by all as a debt exclusion to the property tax levy limit).

Health agent Bob Canning said the management regulations went into effect in 2009 “in the short term to minimize the increase in nitrogen from wastewater flow...and long term to be a non-structural element in the wastewater plan limiting increases in nitrogen.” Under the town's proposed water quality management plan, large portions of the town will remain on septic systems.

“When you disconnect from a septic system, you disconnect from the nutrient management regulations,” Canning said. The town's sewer system would operate under its own state discharge permit.

Asked by McClennen about issues raised by the nutrient management rules over the last decade, Canning said that “the regulation is restrictive to a lot of properties. For individuals who want to increase flow, residential or business, having the restrictions has caused some people to be very upset about that. Our definition of 'bedroom' has made that also difficult because it's very strict. We're trying to work with people who minimized the number of bedrooms but maximize the living space. It's been a challenge.”

Carolyn Kennedy, chair of the marine and fresh water quality committee, said there's “a gaping hole in these regulations: phosphorous. It flows through groundwater and affects freshwater ponds.” Bob Renn of the finance committee suggested that the health board incorporate phosphorous in its management rules.

“The technologies for removing phosphorous are not as developed as for nitrogen,” Canning said. Phosphorous, he said, “generally binds to the soil, the soil gets saturated, and it goes down much farther than nitrogen. Some towns look at setbacks from ponds to delay the process.” He said phosphorous has been removed from many products of late, including fertilizers, but admitted, “There is no magic pill at this point.”

The selectmen, board of health, finance committee and OWQAP also reviewed plans to charge betterments for construction of the sewer system to the properties it will serve, while paying for the treatment plant and disposal area on the tax base. OWQAP member Judith Bruce summed things up for many in the room.

“We have actually been discussing this for 15 years,” she said, “15 years talking about how to pay. The one that makes my brain explode is betterments. How do you make this equitable? How do you determine which (property) is bettered, how bettered, and how do you come up with an objective number? The betterment to all of us is cleaner water. That helps all our properties. There's a reason our neighbors down there (Chatham) adopted sewering the entire town and put it on the property tax. It's so complex to come up with something equitable (that) they just said, this is crazy. Everybody gets sewered, all the waters get cleaned up, and you pay on the property tax.”

Orleans's plan calls for a combination of sewering and non-traditional technologies such as aquaculture and permeable reactive barriers to clean up its waters. Less nitrogen-sensitive areas would continue on septic systems. Town officials are preparing a sewer betterment bylaw that would apportion costs for the collection system to properties once it is built; the current draft is based on a uniform sewer unit rather than lot frontage or another factor.

“Why not use the same basis as Title 5 (septic system regulations), the number of bedrooms, rather than an arbitrary sewer unit?” said Don Cameron of Orleans CAN and OWQAP. “For a one-bedroom condo or a four-bedroom house or a mini-mansion, it's the same sewer unit. Why are we changing?”

“Can we use bedrooms (as a standard)?” McClennen asked. “We have to develop a unit, and it has to be consistent.”

Town Administrator John Kelly said that question has not yet been asked of town counsel. He suggested that trying to extrapolate a residential bedroom unit to the commercial side of things could be problematic unless there were two measurements used in calculating betterments.

Sims McGrath of the board of health said the process could become “highly complex” as existing and potential development of properties is addressed, “and how to manage the type of mixed-use development we are trying to encourage in the village center.” Later, McClennen said the current financial model bases betterments on existing uses per lot. “If something developed, an additional benefit would be charged,” he said.

Selectman David Currier – not speaking from the dais, as the downtown business owner recuses himself on sewer matters due to a potential conflict of interest – raised concerns about what he described as disproportionate costs to businesses under the proposed betterment system. He urged further study of the financial model behind the betterment bylaw, even if that would delay town meeting approval until next year.

“We spent quite a bit of time tonight on the residential side,” McClennen said. “You just showed us the implications on the business side. We have a financial model that allow us to test many of the things we heard tonight so we can come back and talk about implications for these changes. I heard a series of approaches we could input into the model.”

“There is more discussion that needs to happen,” Bruce said. “I think Dave raised good points about business.” Ultimately, she noted, “You cannot please all of the people all of the time.”