DARTMOUTH — The state's environmental agency has agreed to extend the public comment period on proposed septic regulation changes affecting SouthCoast residents in response to a letter from two state lawmakers raising concerns with the new rules.

A Dec. 9 letter from State Senator Mark Montigny and State Rep. Christopher Markey to MassDEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg outlines their issues with possible new requirements for septic system owners.

The proposed changes to Title 5 — the rules governing septic systems in the state — could see homeowners in the Slocum and Westport River watersheds bear the responsibility for installing costly new systems to reduce nitrogen pollution.

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Now, MassDEP has extended the public comment period on the amendments from Dec. 16 until Jan. 30, 2023, and will hold two extra information sessions and two additional public hearings on the matter.

New Septic Costs

Dartmouth Health Director Chris Michaud told WBSM's Tim Weisberg that, while the exact costs for the new septic systems would depend on each homeowner's situation, it could cost residents up to $50,000 each.

According to Dartmouth Week, which first reported the proposed changes in August, the new rules could affect about 2,700 homes with septic systems in the Dartmouth watersheds.

Slocums River Watershed
Courtesy Town of Dartmouth

Nitrogen pollution in estuaries and other coastal waters can cause algae blooms that kill fish and other wildlife by using up all of the oxygen in the water.

Michaud has run his own information sessions for town residents on DEP's proposals and the potential costs, with the next session set to take place on the third floor of Dartmouth Town Hall at 6 p.m. on Dec. 13.

Problems Outlined in the Letter

In their letter, the lawmakers called the proposal "troubling," noting that they "appreciate the need to curtail pollution and minimize nitrogen" in Buzzards Bay, but DEP's solution shows "many shortcomings."

"We are disappointed by the lack of transparency and public access to information surrounding every aspect of this process," they wrote.

The first issue is the membership of the Nitrogen Sensitive Area stakeholders subcommittee responsible for recommending the changes, which Montigny and Markey say were not easily accessible to the public.

DEP Subcommittee Membership

A list of the subcommittee members was released on Dec. 7 and is available on the Town of Dartmouth website.

Out of 30 members listed, 12 — or more than a third — are MassDEP officials.

The rest represent real estate developers — four members are affiliated with the NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association — along with engineers, environmental groups, and State Senator Julian Cyr.

Most of the non-DEP affiliated members are based on Cape Cod, which will also be subject to the septic regulation changes.

Aside from two Buzzards Bay Coalition members, none of the members are based on the SouthCoast.

Other Issues Highlighted

Montigny and Markey also noted that the regulations would apply to both Cape Cod and the South Coast, which have different population demographics, topography, and coastal needs.

"There is no reason why the South Coast and Cape Cod should be lumped together and treated with the same regulatory standards," the lawmakers wrote.

Although a DEP study suggested that up to 29% of nitrogen in Buzzards Bay estuaries comes from residents' septic systems, Markey and Montigny disagreed.

A report from MassDEP showing the sources of nitrogen pollution in the Slocums River watershed
Courtesy MassDEP via Town of Dartmouth

They stated that other evidence suggests "only around 15% of the nitrogen being leaked into South Coast estuaries" comes from household septic, with private industry accounting for most of the pollution.

The lawmakers also said they were troubled by how quickly DEP announced the changes, accusing the agency of trying to "steamroll these regulations into place" with what they called "not a fair nor acceptable process."

In the letter, the delegation requested more time to investigate the proposals.

Later on Dec. 9, MassDEP responded by extending the deadline for public comment to 5 p.m. on Jan. 30, and adding two information sessions (on Jan. 17 and 18) and two virtual public hearings (on Jan. 24 and 25).

To register for the hearings or for more information on the proposals, visit the Cape Cod Commission webpage about the Title 5 amendments.

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