About half of New England’s households are on septic systems, the highest proportion in the country.
For decades, most conventional systems have done a good job of removing pollutants and pathogens. But they're not very good at removing nitrogen, which is in human waste.
Too much nitrogen can wreak havoc on coastal ecosystems, decimating shellfish beds and causing massive fish kills. Recent research at the University of Rhode Island indicates that even the best equipment won't do the job of removing nitrogen, if the septic systems aren’t monitored.
On a recent December morning, a roomful of about 30 septic system designers, installers and engineers took a class to keep their licenses up to date, through URI’s New England Onsite Wastewater Training Program.
This was the first time many of the men and women are hearing about the study.
Sara Wigginton, a soil researcher, presented the data. On the screen just behind her was a graphic of how nitrogen flows through a household wastewater treatment system into a coastal ecosystem -- boilerplate information that many have heard before.
Then, she moved on to talk about nitrogen.
“These conventional systems do a terrible job at removing nitrogen,” she said. No more than 30 percent, and sometimes zero... The reactive forms of nitrogen get into groundwater, our coastal ecosystem, cause algae blooms, nitrification and fish kills.”
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
In coastal New England, and elsewhere in the country, the problem with excess nitrogen is an ongoing issue.
For a year, Wigginton was part of a team that monitored nitrogen levels from several new, high-tech septic systems in towns around Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.
Many of the systems weren't removing nitrogen at the level they were manufactured to -- and unless the researchers were checking, no one would know.
“We know that effluent and concentrations are not monitored after system installation in Rhode Island,” Wigginton said. It’s not required in the state.
“That could lead to higher nitrogen inputs in the ecosystem because we really don’t know what's going on after we install them,” she said from the stage.
In general, septic systems are out of sight, out of mind, unless something visibly goes wrong.
From the back of the room, people started asking questions, like: What kinds of adjustments were done to the system? Were the technicians who installed them qualified?
These were industry people who get their hands dirty. They know just how many variables need to be considered before building a system that uses a series of tanks and pipes and soil.
Still, the point being made was, it doesn't matter how sophisticated or advanced the design, unless it’s checked regularly.
In Massachusetts, that is a requirement for homeowners.
Strict Regulations in Massachusetts
“Our assumption is if you're not watching them, and you’re not maintaining them, then they're not working,” said George Heufelder, at Barnstable County's Department of Health and Environment, which oversees all of Cape Cod, Massachusetts -- a populated, sensitive sandbar of an ecosystem, where about 85 percent of homes are on septic systems.
Like in other parts of the region, state and federal environmental officials, the industry and conservation groups are addressing the nitrogen problem.
“The only thing that Massachusetts has done that probably exceeds what Rhode Island or New York has done is requiring a fairly rigorous monitoring of systems to prove themselves,” Heufelder said.
All new systems on Cape Cod are now connected to an extensive database. If the company hired to manage the homeowner's system doesn’t report nitrogen levels into the database, county health monitors know.
Jonathan Cardinal, a project manager in the industry who works with installers around New England, thinks all states should require homeowners have maintenance contracts for advanced septic systems.
“They usually require quarterly or semi-annual testing. So right then and there, you can tell how the system is doing,” Cardinal said.
Cardinal is based at the Andrew J. Foss Company in New Hampshire. It manufacturers a variety of advanced wastewater systems. They can start at about $10,000. But without maintenance, Cardinal said, no matter how good the system is, if something goes wrong, it's 100 percent on the homeowner.
“If these systems are not serviced they will not supply the results that they were designed for. Because they have to be cleaned. They have to be adjusted sometimes,” Cardinal said.
Town Sewer? Or A Composting Toilet Of One’s Own?
It seems like a lot of people are doing a lot of decentralized work. Why not just hook up every house in every town to a single treatment plant where there is one, tightly regulated wastewater stream to manage?
George Heufelder on Cape Cod said that first of all, it's not affordable for towns to build. And he, for one, remains a fan of localized systems, as long as they're managed right.
“If you ask anybody in the onsite field, is it good for everywhere? We'd say no, but it is good for some places,” Heufelder said. “It's simple, sustainable, and it keeps the waste closest to source of the waste.
It's having skin in the game. Keep the waste close to the source, and those making it may take more responsibility in cleaning it up.
Creative, less expensive solutions do exist, and Heufelder is very excited about the potential of composting toilets, which can remove 90 percent of nitrogen, he said. But the social acceptance of something like that, he acknowledged, is a long way off.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies, including Rhode Island Public Radio, coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.