Weston not alone...
News from around the State of Connecticut...
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
Eventually, the system will fail and waste will come bubbling to the
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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]
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
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."