AN OPINION PIECE in CommonWealth that argued against adoption of the Department of Environmental Protection’s updated regulations governing septic systems was misleading and just plain wrong.
Let’s review the facts.
According to multiple authoritative DEP- and EPA-approved reports, over 50 detailed watershed studies by UMass Dartmouth, dozens of state-prepared and EPA-approved assessments, and the state- and federally-approved Barnstable County study, excess nitrogen is responsible for degrading the estuaries of Cape Cod. According to these same sources, roughly 85 percent of that nitrogen load comes from the septic systems that are legal under the regulations that DEP seeks to replace.
The current septic system code is the cause of, not the solution to, degraded water quality on Cape Cod. That is the status quo the opponents of these regulations seek to maintain. That’s a tough argument to make. So rather than argue for the merits of retaining a code that pollutes, the authors complain about process and misrepresent and ignore facts that undercut their arguments. The authors twist my words to make it appear that I and the Association to Preserve Cape Cod oppose the regulations despite our unequivocal support for these new rules that will reverse destruction of the Cape’s lifeblood, our waters.
The authors don’t want residents or municipalities to have to do anything more to stop polluting the water. They complain that the regulations require costly septic upgrades that will reduce, but not eliminate, nitrogen loadings. At the same time, they argue against watershed permits that would bind municipalities to implement cost effective and heavily subsidized modern wastewater treatment technology to stop the pollution over the next 20 years.
It has been known since the 1980s that nutrient loading was degrading our waters and yet these municipal officials are arguing that a generation-long requirement to comply by 2043 or later is too aggressive. The argument that towns cannot be expected to solve a problem some 60 years after the problem became known is precisely why new requirements are needed if we want to be alive to see our waters restored. Left to their own devices, the most responsible towns will solve their problem because it’s the right thing to do, but many others will continue to do what they have done already for decades: give the issue lip service while continuing to move at a glacial pace or worse, simply continue to do nothing at all.
The authors also fail to mention that Cape towns have been provided special access to 0 percent construction loans and also have access to principal forgiveness of between 3-9 percent on loans from the state and 25 percent principal forgiveness on loans from the Cape and Islands Water Protection Fund. There is unprecedented funding available to towns from the federal infrastructure bill, and the expanded overnight stay tax has allowed towns to shift construction costs off the property tax rolls to the benefit of local residents. Interest rates on loans for Barnstable County to upgrade septic systems or connect to sewers are available for as little as 0 percent interest. Funds were approved by the Legislature in December to provide principal forgiveness to low- and moderate-income borrowers.
These funding tools have enabled many towns to proceed with substantial construction projects without impacting local tax levies. The authors mentioned none of these tools and yet claim towns can’t afford these projects. The evidence is to the contrary, as voters have largely approved projects when asked by town leaders. Many of those claiming most loudly that voters will not support projects are those that refuse to even place the question before voters for their approval. Voters cannot support projects that are not presented to them.
The authors would have you believe that DEP developed these proposals in a vacuum without broad consultation. This simply is not true. They assert that no elected official in a town effected by these regulations was on the advisory committee working with DEP. That’s wrong. DEP, in fact, took the unprecedented step of visiting every town on Cape Cod to brief staff and elected officials and to solicit comments on the proposals prior to their release. All the select board briefings were public meetings. The video recordings of these meetings show open and thoughtful discussions involving the senior leadership of DEP and local officials and residents. DEP outreach to Cape officials was commendable and assertions to the contrary are what is shameful.
The DEP regulations have it right. Working within the constraints of the law, DEP has proposed regulations that outlaw continued pollution of the Cape’s water. The regulations do impose an obligation on homeowners, but that only goes into effect if towns fail to act in the best interests of their residents and seek a permit in the next five years that would provide an additional 20 years to achieve compliance.
Given that town-level actions are the most cost effective, able to achieve the lowest levels of residual nitrogen after treatment, and have access to the highest subsidies, these regulations create the right incentives to push towns to act. Yes, they are intended to spur residents to demand service and actions from their towns. The regulations only impact individual homeowners in the face of continued municipal failings. In that regard, the regulations hold local elected officials to account for the water pollution that has been allowed to persist for decades. Maybe that’s the real rub here.
Andrew Gottlieb is the executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod and has been elected to five terms on the Mashpee Select Board.