Opinion: Stop scapegoating, start solving Marion’s sewer issues
Editor’s note: This letter is in response to 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:
Marion’s sewer rates are ridiculously high. And unfortunately, it’s not because the town treats its sewage to a better standard than anyone else. In fact, the opposite has been true.
The last statewide survey of town sewer rates in 2017 found that Marion residents pay more than double the statewide median. The Marion sewer rate for an average household was $1,785 versus a statewide median of $862. To rub salt in the wound, the surrounding towns do even better than the median. Wareham residents next door paid an average of $596 for that town’s state-of-the-art, award-winning sewer plant. Mattapoisett’s average bill was $820, Falmouth’s $804, and Fairhaven’s $848 to list a few.
This is not the fault of the current Board of Selectmen or town staff – all of whom I believe are trying to come to terms with decades of mismanagement by their predecessors and move forward. But in their frustration, the Selectmen’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.
I’m referring to an Oct. 29 letter and a subsequent ‘Key Points’ email mailed out by Selectmen. Let’s clear the air on some of what’s in that letter:
- 1. Double the Sludge and the Lagoons are still leaking
We’ve all learned a lot over the past decade about just how negligent the town has been in its mismanagement of its sewer infrastructure. The impact of that is seen in everyone’s sewer bills today, but also in the bad decisions and deferred maintenance that led to groundwater pollution from unlined sewage lagoons that are only now finally being addressed.
For 49 years now, Marion’s sewer plant has held raw sewage in unlined lagoons prior to treatment. Those lagoons leaked through their bottom into the town’s groundwater. This fact was first confirmed in a 2011 study by the engineering firm Horsely Witten who was hired by the Buzzards Bay Coalition in partnership with the town. That finding was confirmed by the town’s own engineers, CDM Smith, in 2015. The data was reviewed and accepted by both the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. We even went to the extra step of having the evidence reviewed independently by top scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marine Biological Lab, and the University of Connecticut at Avery Point. All confirmed that the data show that the lagoons are polluting Marion’s groundwater.
There is no validity in the theory that the sewage lagoons somehow don’t leak nitrogen and other pollutants into the groundwater. The Selectmen’s continued peddling of this false narrative serves no one – definitely not Marion sewer rate payers – and only perpetuates a reputation as a town unwilling to accept science and properly manage its own waste before state and federal agencies and funders.
And now the finding just in the past months that the lagoons (which are finally being decommissioned and cleaned up) are holding TWO TO THREE TIMES more toxic sewage sludge than first estimated is shocking for a few reasons. First and most importantly, that’s a lot of toxic contamination sitting in town. Sewage sludge holds the accumulated stock of all of the contamination that people have been dumping down their drains and that can’t be naturally broken down. This is often bad stuff and that’s why towns today dispose of their sludge annually as a regular operations and maintenance cost which also serves to spread out the financial impact. 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. The town has been dodging this sewer expense for decades and it has finally caught up to them.
The other factor that’s shocking about the sludge volume finding is that it was the town’s own engineer CDM Smith that tracked and reported sludge estimates. No one at the EPA, DEP or Buzzards Bay Coalition ever had a hand in calculating those sludge volumes. If the actual figure was 2 to 3 times their original estimate, the town has no one to blame other than their own engineers.
- 2. There are better ways to finance the town’s wastewater needs
Wastewater treatment is not cheap and Marion is challenged by the fact that it’s a small town trying to provide this service all on its own. And there is a lot more work to be done if Marion is going to continue to go-it-alone and update its sewer infrastructure to modern standards that protect the town’s waterways. So how is the town going to pay for it?
We should start by asking, why is Marion still having just 1,700 rate payers cover all of the cost of its sewer infrastructure? It’s no wonder that sewer user bills are so large. Marion is fortunate to have many high-value, seasonal homes contributing to the town’s tax base. Yet, many of those homes are outside of the sewered part of the town and therefore do not contribute to solving the town’s wastewater treatment challenges. But, everyone benefits from having clean water in the town’s harbors and coves.
That’s the same question Cape Cod towns — most of whom are facing wastewater expenses much greater than Marion — have been asking themselves in recent years and coming up with a different approach.
Chatham is in the middle of a $100 million sewer expansion, spending $15 to 18 million per year, and they are paying 100% of the capital expense on the townwide tax rate. That spreads the cost over Chatham’s 6,000 residents, not just their 1,000 sewer users. Next door, Orleans is also spreading 100% of the $15 million capital costs of a new wastewater treatment plant across all taxpayers. In Falmouth, large areas recently got new sewer service and the town is splitting the $30 million cost between 30% on the town wide tax base and 70% of the homeowners getting the new sewer hookups.
Another approach emerged in Sandwich last year where voters approved an innovative townwide 2% property tax surcharge to create a water infrastructure investment fund. The new fund is designed to generate the $86 million needed to fund 25 years of water quality improvements. And to ease the burden of a new tax on homeowners, they paired the decision with a reduction in the property tax surcharge collected by the town’s community preservation act from 3% to 2%.
And then there is the developing opportunity of an Upper Bay Regional Wastewater Plant between Wareham, Bourne and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy that Marion will have the option to join. There could be long-term economies of scale that would make this a cheaper alternative for a small town like Marion and relieve it of managing its own expensive sewer plant. For instance, Dennis, Yarmouth and Harwich are pursuing a similar regional project and it is estimated that those communities will save a combined $83 million in capital costs and $6 million in annual operating costs by sharing a treatment plant.
Each of these approaches has their own unique pros and cons, but the bottom line is that there are better ways to finance needed clean water improvements and Marion doesn’t need to look far for examples.
Marion has a lot of work ahead as it transitions from decades of mismanagement to a town that is both financially and environmentally sustainable. The Selectmen should lay off the scapegoating and denial of the science and put their efforts into learning from their neighbors. I’m sure that all of us who care about clean water and sound fiscal management in Marion would be right there with them, working together to make it happen.
President of the Buzzards Bay Coalition