OSWPCA: Sunshine / Small Towns Faced With Big Waste Choices - Courant 08Jul2002

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Small Towns Faced With Big Waste Choices
July 8, 2002 - By SUDHIN S. THANAWALA, Courant Staff Writer

A small cottage on the shore might accommodate a family of five for a few days, but a 250-gallon septic tank will not.

Brushing their teeth, flushing the toilet and doing the dishes, mom, dad and the kids will send close to 375 gallons of wastewater gurgling through the pipes of their home into the undersized tank each day.

Eventually, the system will fail and waste will come bubbling to the surface.

Such septic woes have come to plague towns along the Connecticut shoreline, where small cottages often host big crowds in the summer. Even when septic tanks are adequately sized, small plots and high water tables make it hard for the systems to function properly. The result: pollution of groundwater and possibly Long Island Sound.

But a typical alternative, a sewage treatment plant, isn't right for all towns, local officials say. They argue that sewers and a large treatment plant would promote uncontrolled development. High-rise apartment buildings and chain restaurants - familiar sights in other communities with sewers - would destroy the towns' character, they say. Put them in the ground, they warn, and the developers will come.

In 1989, Old Saybrook residents balked at a state Department of Environmental Protection order requiring the town to construct a sewage treatment plant that would also serve Westbrook and Clinton. Since then, the festering problem has gone largely unaddressed, as the towns and DEP continue to haggle over the best solution.

"I don't want to rush anything, but I do think we need to address [this problem]," said State Rep. Brian O'Connor, D-Clinton. "We don't want people dragging their feet."

O'Connor said a large, regional sewer plant is not the solution, but as developers and home-builders increasingly look beyond the crowded Gold Coast of Fairfield County for suitable shoreline lots, the sewer issue remains a concern for the three towns.

The plan Old Saybrook officials developed as an alternative for handling local wastewater, which includes a mix of on-site septic technology, stricter regulations and a mini-treatment plant, would be environmentally better than sewers and a single, large treatment plant, local officials say. They point to Rhode Island, which has researched enhanced on-site systems and has many in the ground, as a model for the future of wastewater treatment.

Now, town officials say, it's a matter of convincing the DEP to embrace these alternative technologies. O'Connor said he would like to see a pilot study of the on-site systems that would demonstrate their effectiveness.

A solution could be reached within the next year, officials say. In the meantime, each of the three towns is proceeding with its own plan. Westbrook is investigating sites that could be used to discharge effluent into the ground. Old Saybrook is evaluating individual septic systems in homes it does not plan to hook up to sewers. And Clinton's consultants have presented the town with a plan for a daunting, $56-million, centralized sewer and treatment plant or several mini-plants, an even more expensive option. Neither option is sitting well with town officials, and nothing is decided.

But Old Saybrook's fight has implications for other communities in Connecticut that will eventually have to address wastewater problems. Whether their future holds sewers or a mix of technologies could hinge on the outcome of this shoreline town's battle with the state.

Magnets For Development?

"Any time you put an urban solution in place, you're going to get urban development," said Steve Luckett, Old Saybrook's water pollution control authority coordinator.

Luckett, a vocal critic of sewers and large treatment plants for communities such as Old Saybrook, was hired two years ago to implement the town's wastewater plan. With approval from the DEP still unclear, Luckett has taken to spreading the word - often on his own time - about the town's plan. He has no doubt sewers and a large treatment plant will contribute to development.

Even if the town tried to restrict building, Luckett said, it would be overwhelmed by high-powered attorneys that developers would use to grab land on the lucrative shoreline. "They would argue [that] if there is capacity and a wastewater pipe, and I want to build something next to it, then how is it you can restrict me from doing that," he said.

With the high cost of sewers, there is also concern that the towns would want to extend them to as many properties as possible, spreading out the expense. The DEP's record over the last decade proves otherwise, said Dennis Greci, a supervising sanitary engineer with the agency's water management bureau. Towns that have gone to sewers have successfully kept unwanted development out through local regulations that restrict where sewers can be used, he said.

Even within an area where sewer-use is allowed, the town can restrict the flow of wastewater from each property, limiting the type of development that can be built, Greci said. Attorney Michael A. Zizka, who has helped craft sewer regulations for North Stonington, Burlington and Coventry among other Connecticut towns, said he has not seen a developer successfully challenge a town's sewer regulations in court.

"If a commission develops regulations, reasonable regulations, that specifically say this is who can connect and spells out the circumstances and nobody else, as long as those regulations pass constitutional muster, courts will respect them," he said. Towns with no regulations, Zizka said, are the ones that have to worry.

"Holding your hands up and saying no sewer means no development isn't true, isn't even close to true anymore," said Greci. But concern over development is only a small part of the conflict between Old Saybrook and the DEP. From the agency's plans for the town to the benefits of on-site technology, the parties agree on nothing.

"It doesn't seem the bureaucracy of the DEP wants to move towards new technology," said Old Saybrook First Selectman Michael Pace, former chairman of the local water pollution control commission. "They are comfortable to stay with old technology and old solutions which have, by their own nature, their own design, proven not to be the most environmentally correct things to do - like the bigger sewer plants."

Old Saybrook officials think the DEP is still committed to a regional sewage treatment plant. Greci calls that "sheer nonsense," saying the DEP has not ruled the technology out. One of the concerns is simply who will maintain the enhanced on-site septic systems, which require more care than conventional septic systems, he said.

"If a town wants this, we're going to look to have the town take the ultimate responsibility for keeping them running because it is an alternative to putting pipes in the ground," Greci said.

Luckett said he is eager to manage such a system. The town has come to the end of its 5-year, subsidized pump-out program that encouraged residents to pump their septic tanks. With backing from the state, Luckett said, the town could enforce these and other regulations that would ensure septic systems run properly and remain up-to-date.

Advanced Technology

David Dow filled a plastic cup with wastewater and held it to his nose. The effluent from a home in South Kingstown, R.I., had passed through a sand filter - one of the filters that can be used in an advanced septic system. "It's a lot like tap water," Dow said, noting that the effluent had no smell and was almost clear.

The system is one of more than 35 that Dow and his team at the University of Rhode Island's Onsite Wastewater Training Center have installed over the last six years using federal and state grants. Dow, an on-site systems specialist, said the filte [SIC] technology has proven effective for properties on which conventional systems would not work because there is not enough space, the water table is too high, or the soils are not good - the same limitations many properties along the Connecticut coast face. The URI center is demonstrating the technology to get towns on board.

"The technologies in the last 20 or 30 years have been refined to the point where they're easy to maintain, relatively simple to install, and are very reliable," he said. The advanced treatment units consist of either filters or blowers, which add air to encourage the growth of aerobic bacteria that thrive on the effluent. They can be fitted with an ultraviolet light source that knocks down the pathogen and bacteria count. They also often employ pumps to move effluent to the filter and dose it into the leaching field at certain intervals, so the entire field is used and not overwhelmed.

The technology in Rhode Island is coupled with regulations that the state's department of environmental management has given the towns authority to implement. Some towns in the state now require septic systems be inspected and maintained and the towns enforce their regulations with fines. Dow and others say Connecticut has simply lagged behind other states when it comes to the advanced technology, which has not been approved for use in an individual home in the state. Back in Old Saybrook, Luckett hopes he will be among the first to get that chance.

"If the state would let us go and do this, we'd see a tremendous product," he said. "And I have faith that they will."