Wastewater FAQs

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Why Do Orleans Residents Need to Change the Way They Dispose of Wastewater?

  • Orleans homes and businesses rely almost exclusively on on-site wastewater disposal, using so-called Title 5 septic systems (Title 5 is the Massachusetts state sanitary code)
  • Although there are few, if any, instances of public health problems associated with individual septic systems in Orleans, these systems are not effective in removing nitrogen, which is causing water quality problems in our coastal waters.

What is Nitrogen and Why Should We Worry About It?

  • Nitrogen is a naturally-occurring element.  It is:
    • The largest component of the earth's atmosphere (nitrogen gas is 80% of the air we breathe)
    • An important component of commercial fertilizer (it is the "N" in "NPK")
    • Present in human waste as ammonia and organic nitrogen
    • Present in rainfall as a result of power plant discharges in the Midwest (oxides of nitrogen are air pollutants)
  • Coastal waters have the ability to naturally assimilate some nitrogen load.  When that capacity is exceeded, harmful algal blooms result that impair eelgrass and bottom organisms and make swimming and boating less desirable.

How Does Nitrogen from Septic Systems and Lawn Fertilization Get into Our Coastal Waters?

  • Due to Cape Cod's sandy soils, most of the nitrogen discharged from septic systems, and some of the lawn fertilizer that you apply, leaches downward to the groundwater.  
  • The groundwater moves from upland areas "downgradient" toward the ocean, carrying with it the nitrogen from recharge.
  • Groundwater eventually emerges in our coastal marshes and embayments, together with most or all of the nitrogen recharged across the entire watershed.

How Many Septic Systems Must Be Eliminated?

State-of-the-art scientific studies, developed by the Mass Estuaries Project, have determined that septic systems must be eliminated, as follows, to protect or restore coastal water quality:

  • Pleasant Bay Watershed - 65%
  • Nauset Watershed - 55%
  • Rock Harbor Watershed - 70%
  • Namskaket Watershed - none
  • Little Namskaket Watershed - none
  • Atlantic Ocean Watershed - none

If We Eliminate Septic Systems By Providing A Public Sewer System, Where Does The Nitrogen Go?

  • A public wastewater system would include a sewer system.  Property owners whose septic systems must be eliminated would be required to connect to those sewers.
  • The sewer system would lead to a new wastewater treatment plant.  That plant would:
    • Remove large percentages of all the major contaminants found in wastewater
    • Use special bacteria to convert the ammonia and organic forms of nitrogen to the gaseous form which can be released harmlessly to the atmosphere.
    • Include a very efficient disinfection system that would virtually eliminate all pathogenic material.
  • The purified liquid leaving the plant could be safely recharged to the groundwater or it could be re-used for irrigation.
  • The residual nitrogen that might be recharged to the groundwater must be accounted for in the overall nitrogen management program.
    • In the best case, the residual nitrogen is discharged to the groundwater in the watershed of one of the coastal waters that has surplus assimilative capacity.
    • It is also possible to discharge the residual nitrogen to the groundwater in the watershed of a nitrogen-sensitive coastal water, but only if more septic systems are eliminated  to offset that increased nitrogen load.

Doesn't Orleans Already Share A Wastewater Treatment Plant At The Tri-Town Site Near Rt. 6 & 6A?

No.  That facility receives and treats "septage", the liquid sludge that accumulates in septic tanks.

If We Build A New Wastewater Treatment Plant, What Would Happen To The Existing Tri-Town Facility?

  • Septage will continue to be generated in Orleans (from those septic systems that are not eliminated) and in Eastham and Brewster, who are Orleans's partners in the Tri-Town District.
  • Septage from the three towns would continue to be received at the Tri-Town site, either
    • At a renovated septage facility, or
    • As part of a new wastewater treatment plant, if it is located there.
  • The septage would be co-treated with any liquid sludges produced in the wastewater treatment process, either at this site or at other sites in Orleans.

Is There A Single Best Way To Collect And Treat Orleans' Wastewater?

The Wastewater Management Steering Committee has identified three promising wastewater plans:

  • Plan 1: four decentralized wastewater facilities located in each of the major watersheds, with the effluent discharged to the groundwater at nearby sites.
  • Plan 2: a centralized wastewater facility located on the Tri-Town property with discharge to the groundwater there.
  • Plan 3: a centralized wastewater facility in South Orleans, with summer spray irrigation of golf courses in Brewster and winter discharge to the groundwater.

The WMSC is conducting a detailed comparison of these three plans and invites your input on which is "best".

How Will The WMSC Determine Which Plan Is "Best"?

A large number of "evaluative factors" are being considered, including:

  • Cost
  • Environmental impact
  • Need to buy private sites
  • Acceptability to the regulatory agencies
  • Potential impacts on neighbors
  • Expandability for regionalization
  • Overall public acceptability

The WMSC seeks your input on which of these factors are most important.

How Long Will It Take To Clean Up The Nitrogen Problem?

  • Public projects like this one are accomplished in four phases:
    • Planning (figuring out which is the best plan)
    • Design (preparing drawings and specifications for the best plan)
    • Construction (building the needed facilities)
    • Operation (collecting and treating the wastewater and disposing of (or reusing) the effluent
  • We now expect to complete the planning stage in 2010:Recommendation by WMSC of the "best" plan at October 2008 Special Town MeetingAdditional planning activities to fine-tune the recommended plan from late 2008 to early 2010.
  • The design phase would be authorized at the May 2010 Annual Town Meeting and be compete by early 2012.
  • Construction of the first phase of wastewater facilities would start in the summer of 2012 and continue for 2 years.
  • The start-up of the first phase of facilities would occur in 2014.
  • Improvements in water quality would be seen within a few years of plant start-up.

What Happens If We Do Nothing About The Nitrogen Problem?

Nitrogen loads will continue to increase and water quality problems will grow worse.

Eventually our coastal waters will be largely unfit for shellfishing and undesirable for swimming and boating. The tourist industry will suffer and property values will decline.

If we do not meet the standards that are being set for nitrogen removal, we will be subject to state and federal regulatory enforcement actions, which would include mandated compliance schedules and fines.

Is There Money To Be Saved By Finding Regional Solutions?

Yes.  For small towns like Orleans and its neighbors, it is usually cheaper for two or more towns to get together, provided that transport distances are not too great and suitable sites exist.

The WMSC has received a grant from the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative to look into the savings that could accrue to all towns.

We are evaluating each of the candidate plans to see if they can be expanded to handle wastewater from Eastham and Brewster.

How much will the CWMP cost me?

Preliminary estimates indicate that the 3 plans under consideration will cost the following:

  • Plan 1 -  $204 million
  • Plan 2 -  $145 million
  • Plan 3 -   $170 million

How the facilities will be funded has not yet been determined. Capital facilities is expected to be through a combination of taxes and betterments. Access to the State Revolving Fund will help to reduce the cost to taxpayers.

Operational costs will be paid through user fees to those connected to the sewer.