Opinion: Let’s stop spreading misinformation about Marion’s Sewer issues

Jan 7, 2021

Editor’s note: This letter is in response to a Dec. 28 letter from Buzzards Bay Coalition President Mark Rasmussen regarding claims from the Town of Marion over the projected cost of the lining of one of the lagoons at its wastewater treatment plant. The Buzzards Bay Coalition sued the town in 2018 for an alleged violation of the Massachusetts Clean Water Act, saying that nitrogen was reportedly leaking from the lagoons and into the nearby Aucoot Cove. The town denies this claim. The case was dropped in 2019 after the town entered into an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Protection to line one of the three lagoons.

To the Editor:

It is puzzling why Mr. Rasmussen’s writes at this time; his motive is not clear. His article is  unfairly extremely critical of Marion and its management.  His comments require clarification so that Marion’s residents understand the complete picture. He says: 

“Marion’s sewer rates are ridiculously high” – Marion’s rates are high.  We already know that. This not some concealed fact or startling revelation. 

“It’s not because the town treats its sewage to a better standard than anyone else. In fact, the  opposite has been true” – Mr. Rasmussen choses to ignore the fact that the Marion  Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) effluent meets or exceeds the MassDEP and EPA  requirements of our operating permit; a comparison is not necessary. 

Marion residents pay more than double the statewide median” – This statement and the  initial “ridiculously high” are not helpful. 

The Selectman’s current advocacy aiming to secure a $2 million state grant is falling back on  some tired political tactics – baseless rejections of science and scapegoating – and does little  to set the town on a new course to fiscal responsibility” – Three years ago, we asked  Representative Strauss for State help to offset the ratepayer financial burden. He identified  an Environmental Bond Bill option for towns on Buzzards Bay with wastewater lagoons. He  was successful in getting $2 million included in the approved bill. Marion applied for the  grant and was approved; we are still waiting for the State to allocate the money to us. This  is the reason for the October 29th letter. The charge of baseless rejections of science is  insulting and is Mr. Rasmussen politicizing the use of the word, science. I have an  engineering education, a career devoted to the design and construction of nuclear  submarines, and was a member of the Conservation Commission for 15 years, science has  been my whole career. 

We’ve all learned a lot over the past decade about just how negligent the town has been in its  management of the sewer infrastructure….bad decisions and deferred maintenance…” – This  characterization is self-serving and baseless. Marion built a whole new wastewater treatment plant in 2005 that included the lagoons as an integral component.  It met all  federal and state environmental requirements at the time it was built, and has been successfully operated and maintained it ever since. There have been no equipment  breakdowns and no unauthorized discharges. Yes, parts of the collection system are 50  years old.  Marion is not alone, it is true for most towns in Massachusetts including  Wareham, a town that Mr. Rasmussen puts on pedestal for its wastewater management.   Marion is making a systematic effort to repair it, primarily through lining pipes in our aging  collection system.  We have budgeted approximately $200,000 per year for this work and  will accelerate this repair work if more funds become available.

For 49 years now, Marion’ sewer plant has held raw sewage in the unlined lagoons prior to  treatment” – Raw sewage is diverted to the lagoons only when the incoming flow  temporarily exceeds the plant’s capacity to microbiologically treat it, which happens only  when there is significant rain event increasing infiltration of storm water into the collection  system. Subsequently that influent is pumped back into the plant for processing. The waste  activated sludge product from Sequencing Batch Reactors is then discharged to Lagoon #1. Raw sewage has not been stored in the lagoons for 49 years. 

Those lagoons leaked through their bottom into the town’s groundwater….fact first  confirmed in a 2011 study….that finding was confirmed by the Town’s own engineers…” – The  2011 study had many technical errors. It indicated that there might be leakage, it did not  confirm leakage. The Town’s engineers did an independent water balance study of the data  from rain/snow, evaporation, and plant capabilities. Included was an uncertainty analysis  of the calculations. The uncertainty could be attributed to rain/snow data measurement  accuracies, evaporation estimations, plant pump/motor capacity variations, effluent  addition/removal, or lagoon leakage. This is not confirmation of a leak, only indication that  a leak could be a contributing factor. The sludge removed from Lagoon #1 was over a foot  deep and basically impermeable to liquid transfer; think of peanut butter. Lagoon #3 is  partially in the Aucoot Cove watershed, it is the least frequently used and never for raw  sewerage. Engineers estimate it would take 50 years for any leaking effluent to reach  Aucoot Cove. Claiming that the lagoons have been polluting Marion water bodies for their  whole existence does not make it true. 

toxic sewage sludge….lot of toxic contamination sitting in town….sludge holds the  accumulated stock of all of the contamination…” – Toxic sludge originates from industrial  processes, only 1% Marion’s tax base is industrial. We simply to not have the potential for a   “lot of toxic contamination” in the sewage sludge. In fact, sludge from Lagoon #1 was  chemically analyzed to determine the disposal method, the analysis revealed that the  sludge is non-toxic. 

Let’s be clear, the costs that Marion is facing right now to properly dispose of their sludge is  not a new expense and Marion is not being treated unfairly” – Let’s be clear, there is no  environmental requirement to periodically dispose of sludge. This is new, never required  before the Buzzards Bay Coalition interference. 

“…the town has no one to blame other than their own engineers (for misjudging the amount  of sludge)…” – True. After the fact an independent expert noted that in his experience the  amount of sludge is generally underestimated.  The fact the amount of sludge was initially  underestimated does not change the final cost for removing it. 

“Marion is going to continue to go-it-alone and update its sewer infrastructure” – Implied is  that Marion should be participating in the Wareham multiple community project. Marion is  in fact participating in this ongoing concept exploration, a project that is probably 10 years away at best from having any operational facility. Meanwhile Marion has agreed to MassDEP and EPA compliance requirements that have specific near-term completion dates. Not complying with these can result in crippling fines.

Why is Marion still having just 1700 rate payers…” – Expanding the number of sewer  system ratepayers requires expanding our service areas. Weston&Sampson was hired to  prepare a Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan which will identify and prioritize  the parts it makes economic sense to extend the sewer to. As part of the contract, Weston  &Sampson is required to hold several public hearings to review the report with the public, seek feedback and answer any questions. The preparation is behind schedule due to Covid. Our problem will be finding the money to expand service areas, while containing the  burden on the taxpayer.   

Upper Bay Regional Wastewater Plant….provides long-term economies of scale…” – To date, Marion is participating in this ongoing concept exploration. The key words are “long-term”  as this project is many years away from any final design, construction, and operation. In the  meantime, Marion is required to spend millions to upgrade its plant to meet legally imposed completion dates. 

Marion has lot of work ahead of it as it transitions from decades of mismanagement to a  town that is both financially and environmentally sustainable” – Accusing Marion of  mismanagement without detailed evidence is less than useful and borders on libel. 

The Selectmen should lay off the scapegoating and denial of science….” – Interesting that Mr.  Rasmussen multiple times referred to the 2011 study, what it said and how it was used, but when Marion talks about it it’s scapegoating. Their 2011 study had many technical errors. It is no coincidence that the first draft MassDEP/EPA operating permit reflected the 2011  study. 

In summary Mr. Rasmussen’s opinion is misleading and unhelpful. If the Buzzards Bay Coalition seriously is concerned about funding the project work, they should make a significant donation to the Town for the project. Every penny we don’t have to borrow is money that the ratepayers will not see in their bill.


Norman Hills

Marion Selectman