MASHPEE CONFERENCE ON SAVING MONEY ON SEWERS SMASH SUCCESS
DECEMBER 6, 2009
RETHINKING SEWERS ON CAPE COD: TAXPAYERS DEMAND PUBLIC OFFICIALS NOT WASTE MONEY ON UNNECESSARILYEXPENSIVE CENTRALIZED SEWERS
December 5, 2009--On a rainy Saturday just a few weeks before Christmas about 110 people from across Cape Cod gathered in Mashpee to learn about better, faster and cheaper ways to clean up the Cape’s waters of its excess nitrogen than with hugely expensive and disruptive conventional centralized sewer systems.
Officials and taxpayers, consultants and environmentalists from the towns of Chatham, Orleans, Dennis, Barnstable, Mashpee, Falmouth and Sandwich were in the audience as was Department of Environmental official David DeLorenzo.
The principal sponsor was the national environmental organization Clean Water Action, which claims 30,000 members in Massachusetts.
Representative Matt Patrick opened the proceedings by detailing the struggles faced by taxpayers he deals with on a daily basis and the impossibility of their being able to bear the cost of the centralized sewer system ($600 million) being proposed by Stearns & Wheler for his home town of Falmouth.
As Patrick said, “I don’t fault Stearns & Wheler. Their job is to make money and building these big sewer systems is a great way for them to do that.” It’s up to public officials to find ways to do the job cheaper.
Representative Patrick said that the billions it would take to build centralized sewer systems all over Cape Cod was a mad and unnecessary expenditure – even it were affordable, which it is not.
Patrick reported that he has discussed this matter with Governor Patrick and told him that there were much alternatives available to do the job that were much in use throughout the United States but not so much in Massachusetts that could reduce costs 25% to 50%.
The Governor agreed that saving money on such important projects had to be made an urgent priority. He asked Representative Patrick to meet to meet right away with Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Laurie Bird to get their help in dealing with the Cape Cod cost crisis. Whatever was needed to get cheaper alternatives into the clean water solution mix should be done was the message Representative Patrick carried away from his meeting with the Governor.
In Representative Patrick’s meeting with Bowles and Bird, they promptly agreed to sponsor a Capewide informational session on educating the public and public officials on these less expensive ways of dealing with wastewater pollution that are in us elsewhere in the United States and in Canada. It will be held early in 2010.
Representative Patrick will also be working with DEP to get more money allocated to developing model plans for use of decentralized systems alone or in combination with centralized systems to meet the goal of coastal waters clear of excess nitrogen.
Becky Smith, speaking for the principal sponsor Clean Water Action, made clear that CWA’s primary interest was in cleaning up the Cape’s waters and it strongly believed that this could be accomplished in a better way for the environment by the use of alternative low cost decentralized sewer systems. These systems use fewer resources to construct, do not violate and deplete the water table and in fact constantly replenish the existing water supply.
Since such low cost alternative systems are far more affordable than the environmentally disruptive centralized sewer systems, CWA is happy to unite with taxpayers who also want to clean away the excess nitrogen problems, but at far less cost.
Smith noted that the Conservation Law Foundation also supports Cape towns considering alternatives to centralized sewers and has stated flatly it is not forcing Cape towns into centralized sewers, which they also consider environmentally damaging..
Valerie Nelson, head of the Coalition for Alternative Wastewater Treatment, just back from a conference on the interrelationship of water-energy-and wastewater in Beijing, reported on how integrating resource management has suddenly become a matter of pressing environmental importance.
While in the United States there is new focus on energy conservation, what’s rapidly developing is an awareness that saving all water and even wastewater is an environmental imperative, Nelson said. The electrifying discovery is that in conserving and recycling money can not only be saved, but made. Byproducts of the processes can be used, such as heat for cooling, biosolids for fuel and recovery of nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater for use in fertilizers. There is, she said, a whole new excitement about how profits can be made, costs reduced and resources conserved. The paradigm shift is taking place faster than hardly anyone thinks.
The main part of the informational session was presenting real world examples of how alternative systems are being used around the country. Jim Kreissl, now retired but for years the top researcher at EPA National on the use of alternative systems, led off with a primer on how alternative systems differed from centralized systems and why they could be built cheaper, better (for the environment and community disruption) and faster.
Kreissl had presented at the Chatham Concerned Taxpayers forum “Cleaning the Waters and Saving Taxpayer Money, Too” on September 12, 2009 in Chatham.
Kreissl's emphasis was on decentralized or cluster systems, which are the alternatives which seem most suitable to Massachusetts. Low cost systems use smaller pipes that don’t leak, are installed above water tables and convey wastewater shorter distances) as contrasted with centralized sewers (up to 25 feet deep, big pipes, in water tables often, leak, cause major street disruption).
His critical comment about the excessive amount of “effluent” the centralized sewer system proposed by Chatham town officials would “jam” into the one patch of soil that drains into Cockle Cove was sharply protested by Dr. Robert Donaldson, who heads the Chatham centralized sewer project under Town Manager William Hinchey; Donaldson asserted that that high level had been approved by DEP. Kreissl still didn't believe that was a good environmental decision.
Craig Goodwin of Northwest Cascade, headquartered in the State of Washington, gave the most extensive presentation of work his company has done throughout the country, including in the ecologically trouble Chesapeake Bay region.
While centralized sewers are somewhat of a “one size or plan fits all” alternative systems can be tailored to the needs and geographic requirements of the particular locale. Because decentralized systems allow for an incremental approach, they can be used to attack particularly troublesome areas quickly and individually and get the remedial underway in short order; there is no need to wait years for a townwide solution to be hooked up as is the case for a centralized system.
Northwest Cascade's experience is that such alternatives do in fact deliver savings of 25% to 50% over what centralized systems would cost.
David Cotton, speaking for Orenco Systems of Oregon and Craig Lindell, speaking for Aquapoint, a national organization headquartered in New Bedford, both echoed Goodwin on the cost savings achieved through use of alternative systems and they both emphasized that these alternative systems are able to remove whatever contaminants are desired to be removed, be it nitrogen or pharmaceutical residues.
The engineering firm with the most experience on Cape Cod with decentralized systems that remove nitrogen at the required level is Lombardo Associates of Newton, Massachusetts. His system is in the process of evaluation for nitrogen removal in Mashpee alongside Stearns & Wheler’s centralized sewer system.
The first (Popponesset Bay) of two reports to be made by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project has just been released. The Lombardo system was the only one that met requirements. The second report (Waquoit Bay) is to be issued December 15th.. Lombardo Associates expects it will pass that test as well.
For Mashpee, the Lombardo decentralized system could represent a savings of $300 million over the Stearns & Wheler centralized system. Lombardo presented information about the many other alternative systems it has installed around the country, all of which removed nitrogen at or better than the required levels.
Bruce Douglas of Stone Environmental, Vermont turned to the kind of integrated approach to energy, water and wastewater that Valerie Nelson reported on as an important focus of the Beijing environmental conference she attended last month. Douglas has been working on a project on Victoria, British Columbia that incorporates this vision and turning costs centers into profits.
What dominated the roundtable discussion that wound up the all-day session was frustration with state, county and local officials who seem indifferent to taxpayer concerns about the proposed costs of centralized sewers to solve the nitrogen problem.
In some if not most Cape towns, a big city sewer would not even be a consideration were it not for the need to remove excess nitrogen out the coastal waters. While solving the problem is important, it is also important not to drive families out of their homes, not to burden operating budgets for years to come and to crowd out other needed capital projects. DEP officials, at least those at the on-the-ground level, were charged with opposing change, being content with what they had worked with for years.
As Representative Patrick noted, consultants such as big sewer designers and builders Stearns & Wheler and Wright-Pierce should be expected to sell their solutions, but both appointed and elected officials are also too content to just do what others have done for decades rather than seek out alternatives that will do the job for far less taxpayer money.
Listeners were dismayed to hear Fran Meaney of Chatham Concerned Taxpayers describe how CCT's appeals in person and in writing to the fiduciary responsibility of the Chatham selectmen to taxpayers to spend their money wisely were rejected. CCT was only asking that town officials at least evaluate currently available alternative systems that could remove the required excess nitrogen at far less cost than the centralized sewer system they are rushing to install. The Chatham selectmen voted 5 to 0 that looking into the possible savings of up to $100 million of taxpayer money did not interest them.
Chatham is the only town using the pretext of "free" federal stimulus money to rush ahead with a centralized sewer system without a town meeting vote on the overall Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan.
Meaney indicated there was too much money at stake for Cape taxpayers everywhere not to keep pressing hard to get officials at every level to give fair consideration of alternatives that could save Cape taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars if not billions. There are others options that can be pursued if elected officials refuse to do their duty, he noted.
Several spoke of the desirability of a Capewide coalition to press the case for alternatives. Such a coalition is in the process of formation now – Cape Cod Clean Water Coalition for Cost Effective alternatives.
Representative Patrick was applauded for the leadership he has taken on to push state authorities.
Valerie Nelson concluded on a upbeat note, stressing that these are exciting times when new thinking is bringing forward ideas of how to improve the environment, do it less expensively and even, in the not too distance future, to even make a profit in the process.
As for sewers on Cape Cod, Nelson said, they can be built better, faster and cheaper with alternative methods and no one should let up on their demands that public officials do their duty to taxpayers and not waste taxpayer money on unnecessarily expensive wastewater solutions.