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