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Wastewater management


In 1972, the Federal EPA instituted a new law, the Clean Water Act, "... to ensure that drinkingwater is safe, and to restore and maintain oceans, watersheds, and their aquatic ecosystems to protect human health, support economic and recreational activities, and provide healthy habitat for fish, plants, and wildlife."

In 1995, Massachusetts DEP (Department of Environmental Proctection!) instituted a new code for onsite septic systems, called Title 5 regulations.

However, these septic regulations turned out to cause far more nitrogen pollution than the previous septic system designs. The nitrogen, almost all of it from our urine, leaches down into the groundwater, which drains into the coastal ponds at the end of each watershed area, and this immense influx of tens of thousands of pound of nitrogen is the primary cause of the algae infestations that are killing our coastal pond.

Thus, the appalling fact is that, ever since 1995,

the DEP Title 5 regulations

have been in total violation of Federal Law.

Even worse is the fact that the DEP has been fully aware of this problem ever since 1995, but in spite of this, the DEP has been forcing us to install many thousands of these Title 5 septic systems, under threat of $500/day fine for non-compliance.

And, as predicted by DEP's own scientists ever since 1995, our coastal ponds, salt marshes and beaches have been plagued by horrendous algae infestations ever since, and the subsequent rot and stench and death of large areas of these beloved and essential marine ecosystems. And now these algae infestations even include highly toxic forms of cyanobacteria. Even just walking in the water has caused serious illnesses.

In addition to the severe nitrogen pollution, Title 5 systems also leach viruses, antibiotics, toxins, hormones, etc (theVATHs“) into our groundwater (our drinking water!), which then flows into our coastal ponds. After heavy rains, even the bacteria leach through, polluting our beaches and ponds, causing painful diseases. Our boards of health post signs: “No Swimming! – Polluted Water”!

As news of this spreads nationwide, millions are lost as reservations for cottages, hotels, cars, bikes, boats, planes and restaurants are cancelled.

We produce immense amounts of nitrogen - 6-10 lbs/person/year, almost all of it in our urine.

Imagine this amount of Nitrogen: 3-5 standard 40-lb-bags of 5-10-5 fertilizer - poured straight into our septic system, without any carbon or plants to absorb it, until it reaches the ponds. When this joins with the nitrogen from all the 3000 people who may live within a certain watershed area, the pond gets grossly over-fertilized with tens of thousands of pounds of nitrogen, annually.

This is the cause of the devastating algae infestations that have ruined our pond ecosystems – and have turned swimming, walking, shellfishing from bliss to yuck.

Fertilizers, road runoff and water fowl contribute only a minor share of the total nitrogen.

Healthy eelgrass in coastal ponds Eelgrass killed by nitrogen pollution

Because of the lawsuit brought by Conservation Law Foundation, the DEP finally publically admitted that, yes, most of the nitrogen pollution (75-80%) that has been destroying our ponds does indeed come from Title 5 septic systems, and DEP is now requiring that, within 5 years, all Title 5 systems located in the various watershed areas must be retrofitted with innovative alternative (I/A) technologies capable of reducing nitrogen by 75%. Yes! Finally!

However, there is a very big problem: DEP is continuing to deny permit for any I/A tech that has not been approved by DEP, and those systems cost $50,000, and require big machines for installing big tanks, which often requires removal of beloved trees and gardens.

And what does it take to get such a permit? It requires at least $100,000 and a couple of years at a test site on the remote Otis military base off-island, on Cape Cod. This is an outrageous demand, and completely unnecessary from a public health or any other point of view.

Instead, every community could have a strict and perfectly safe testing protocol for all I/A technologies, administered by agents our own local boards of health, fully committed to comply with the Federal Clean Water Act, and a team of inspectors to test for nitrogen and check for any sign of risk to public health, such as overflows, insects or odors. This would save so much money and time.

The common assumption all along has been that: 

"Our boards of health do not have the power to permit anything that has not been approved by DEP"      Actually, this is not true. The reality is that, it is actually our own local boards of health have the ultimate responsibility and duty to comply with the Clean Water Act, as follows, straight from the DEP Title 5 regulations:

Here are the key words: "... the legally designated health authority of any town ... may adopt any rules and regulations containing requirements stricter than those contained in this code."

And again:

Thus, all along, our boards of health have had the ultimate responsibilty to enforce the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972 - here it is again:

"... to ensure that drinkingwater is safe, and to restore and maintain

oceans, watersheds, and their aquatic ecosystems,

to protect human health, support economic and recreational activities,

and provide healthy habitat for fish, plants, and wildlife."

Thus it is actually our own local boards of health that are in charge of protecting our ponds and our health. But instead, they have allowed and enabled the DEP to force us all to violate the Clean Water Act law. Thus our own boards of health have been enabling the State DEP to destroy our ponds, and that is what they are still doing.

Now we, The People, must stand up and reclaim our local rights to protect our waters and our health, and demand that our boards of health resume their lawful duty as laid down by federal law.

We want our boards of health to start issuing permits for any I/A technologies that seem likely to reduce nitrogen by at least 75% without any risk to public health, under a strict supervision and testing protocol. I have a proposal that will reduce our nitrogen pollution by more than 75% (more like 90%) within 5 years, in ways that will save us many millions of dollars.

See: "A Proposal for Wastewater Management on Martha's Vineyard".

Also: "How to Rapidly Heal Our Ponds".

The fact is that we have had much better options available for a very long time.

And how do I know this? Because, ever since 1995, the various Solviva wood chip filter systems have been proven to be capable of reliably reducing nitrogen by 75-99%, and they have the tremendous advantage of costing 50-80% less than the DEP-approved systems.

In addition, the Solviva systems do not require large machines to install large tanks, so they are much easier to install, and do not harm gardens and trees. Instead, the Solviva systems benefit the gardens by providing valuable irrigation water.

But before I tell more about that,

here's the story about how I got involved with wastewater in the first place.

In 1978, the year I turned 40, I discovered something that blew my mind:

URINE is actually an extraordinary fertilizer!

In 1978, made a discovery that set me on a path to find better ways to manage our wastewater. I was living in this simple exquisite little cottage in the woods, at the edge of a wetland humming with birds, frogs, butterflies and bees feasting among wildflowers surrounding the cottage.

It had no plumbing except a handpump by the kitchen sink, and, for the first year, not even an outhouse. We managed, surprisingly happily actually, with a seat placed securely over a hole in the ground at the base of the adjacent tall elegant hickory tree. Although we sometimes dreaded going out there, we always came back happy from that outing no matter what the weather was like - rain, snow or shine. There was always some great Nature Show going on close by: a bird singing to us, or an ant trundling a stick four times its own size over the rough terrain of the forest floor, or sunshine sparkling on a perfect spider web draped with dewdrop diamonds. Anyone who has ever camped out in the wilderness can relate to this.

For peeing we usually used a pot designated for this purpose, a technology ubiquitous in all sectors of society until so recently. Knowing that dog urine can kill grass and bushes, we disposed of our urine by first diluting it with water, about 1:10, then tossing it out here and there in order to avoid any damage and odors.

It never did smell, but I was in no way prepared for what followed when spring burst forth after that first winter. The first indication was from the wildflowers that soon carpeted the forest floor. Here and there were patches of significantly healthier and larger plants.

Then there was the little stunted bleeding heart plant I had adopted and planted the previous fall. It quickly grew into an exceptionally large and splendid specimen which was amazing enough, but I really began to wonder what was going on when it then proceeded to bloom way past its normal time, mid-June. In fact, it bloomed continuously up until frost took it in late fall.

Indian poke plants, normally no more than 5 feet tall, grew to over 10 feet tall, reaching half way up the second floor window. The spindly spirea bush blossomed into the most extraordinary bridal bouquet display. These and other unusually vibrant plants formed roughly a circle around the cottage, and I soon realized that these were the places where we had poured the diluted urine. Could it be that this waste product was not just an ecological menace, but could perhaps actually be a beneficial fertilizer?

Most intriguing of all was the strong kinship and communication I sensed with these plants. The waste molecules from my body were being absorbed as nutrients by these living plants. I felt reincarnated while I was still alive! This liquid soon inspired new names: Peace-on-Earth... You’re-in-Charge... You’re-in-Harmony... Aqua Vitae....

I learned that URINE is actually an extraordinary fertilizer!

This 3'x3' patch of onions got only urine as fertilizer, diluted 1:10. The 350 onions lasted all winter.

It was a stunning surprise to see the plants grow to more than twice their normal size! Like the pokeberry plant to the left: normally no more than 5 feet tall, it grew to be taller than 10 feet!

The 2 images on the lower right show the amazing zero-cost greywater system: just a shallow hollow filled with wood chips (no liner or gravel!), which resulted in exceptionally vigorous plants, zero pollution, zero problems, and saving at least $20-30,000, which is the cost of the septic systems required by DEP even for just the greywater!

Hearing the story about the amazing result from using urine as a fertilizer, one scientist said: "Urine can't be used as a fertilizer - it's the wrong form of nitrogen."

To which another scientist responded:

"Don't forget that the scientific laws of aerodynamics proved that bumblebee can't fly."

After two years in this tiny little cozy cottage in the woods, I decided to move back into my larger home, to have more space and more solar exposure, to follow my growing urge to bring more solar-green into my life. I made some improvements, to bring in more solar energy, and to grow vegetables in my livingroom and kitchen in the winter.

But, just a few months after I moved back in, my state-of the-art airtight woodstove exploded and my house burned down (see more in the "Introduction"). I soon realized that this horrific event gave me the opportunity to rebuild, and I dove into rethinking every aspect of how we live.

I was wondering, might it be possible to live in ways that don't cause pollution and don't require fossil fuels or pesticides? I soon embarked on designing a new home, which would, of course, include non-polluting wastewater management.

Here's the composting toilet I design for my new home, one upstairs and one downstairs.

This system is ever so much more comfortable, convenient and pleasant than 5-gallon-bucket systems. It uses a 20-gallon barrel, needs no exhaust fan and thus requires no electricity. It generates no flies and no odors. It truly is a no-touch, no-turning, no-see, no-smell, no-yuck system.

It's fine to pee while pooping, but for just peeing, use a separate easy-to-carry container in order to avoid the barrel getting waterlogged, smelly and too heavy. The simplest way to deal with the urine is to pour it straight onto your compost bin, which adds valuable nitrogen and dozens of other essential nutrients that plants need to thrive.

It's such a beautiful circle we are part of -

the Plant Kingdom requires constant access to the waste products of the Animal Kingdom: CO2, nitrogen and myriads of other components that are essential for Plants.

While the Animal Kingdom requires access to the waste products of the Plant Kingdom:

the oxygen, proteins and myriads of other nutrients that Animals,

including Homo sapiens, need to survive.

When the barrel is 3/4 full, move it to the composting area right outside - top it off with some of the compost from the previous barrel, now mostly decomposed and full of redworms and microcritters. Add enough water or urine to make it quite moist but not too wet. Then put on the lid securely - to prevent flies and rainwater.

No dumping or washing is required - the whole barrel exchange process is so easy and takes just a couple of minutes, and you can have as many barrels as needed.

Maybe 8 barrels for a family of 4. Extraordinarily rapid decomposition takes place outside, right within the same barrel - 2-3 weeks in warm weather, 6-8 weeks during winter cold. No turning or aerating is required, because this work is done by the redworms. This is Redworm Heaven!

By the time you rotate back to the first barrel, the contents will be completely composted, and when you empty that barrel, it will be so clean and odor-free that all that's needed is a a quick hose-down. And while still damp, dust the inside with a little of the dry cover-mix (sawdust + compost). This system causes no pollution whatsoever.  Scroll down to see the detailed designs below. And there's much more info in my second book, Green Light att the End of the Tunnel.

Women loved this composting toilet! Kids adored it!! Men - not so much.

I realized that, no matter how wonderful waterless toilets can be, probably 90% of the population would prefer flushtoilets. So I wondered: what about a Composting Flushtoilet??

So, in 1995, I removed the upstairs compost toilet, and replaced it with a regular flushtoilet,

and plumbed it to drain into a woodchip-filled insulated composting chamber right outside below the bathroom window. This drained into a small float-switch-controlled pump chamber, which delivered the effluent to a shallow woodchip-filled Greenfilter infitration bed along a row of white pines, which obviously thrived as a result. This simple system proved to reduce nitrogen pollution by an amazing 95-99% ! Unlike regular septic systems, the Solviva systems do not require huge machines to dig huge holes that require removal of gardens and trees.

Cost: 50-70% less than the DEP-approved nitrogen-reducing I/A systems.

Red Worm Heaven indeed! Everything decomposed within 24 hours! No odors, no flies. It is of utmost importance to prevent clog-up, because the redworms will die if the compost gets waterlogged.

Thus was born the Solviva Composting Flushtoilet, a brand new concept that nobody thought would be possible, but, again, it worked out way beyond my own highest hopes.

This was indeed a brand-new idea, and it totally exceeded my highest expectations. It also astonished everyone who saw it, including Trudy Coxe, who was at that time the top Massachusetts official in charge of DEP. She leaned right into this composting chamber, where, as usual, everything flushed down that morning had already been consumed by thousands of happy redworms:"What??!You can do this with a regular flush toilet?!? My God, how is this possible!? No bad odors! Nothing visible except redworms! We need this everywhere!" And she lamented the fact that even she was severely restricted in her ability to affect any changes in the regulation.

This system is a game changer, because it proves that we can keep our dear flush toilets (a pretty marvellous device, especially with a bidet attachment!), without continuing the horrific pollution they have been causing for so long. And it proves that, as a community, we sure don't need to spend hundreds of millions for DEP-approved A/I nitrogen-reducing systems, or for expanding our central sewage systems.

This system is scalable to the tallest highrises and densest neighborhoods, and the key ingredient, wood chips, is a totally renewable and readily available local resource.

                       A Solviva flush-toilet system for an apartment building


In 2009, I built the Solviva Pool House, and, of course, installed a full Solviva Composting Flushtoilet system, which proved the same great results as the one in my home.

As a result of this clean wastewater management, my pond was never the victim of nitrogen pollution, and thus never turned putred with algae infestations. Instead it remained the sparkling clean, fresh-scented sustainable ecosystem it had always been, with a rich variety of birds, turtles, frogs, dragonflies, fish, wildflowers, shrubs and trees, and visiting river otters.

There are two severe disadvantages of being limited to using only DEP-approved I/A technologies:

1. They cost immense amounts of money, as reported by recent consultants: "$40-50,000".

The cost of financing, testing and maintenance of these systems adds up to $8000-12,000

expense annually, on top of our already immense rising costs for taxes, water, insurance,

electricity, heating, etc.

2. These DEP-approved systems require big machines for digging big holes to install them, which in

most cases requires removing trees, shrubs and gardens. And, of course, the cost of landscape

restorations has to then be added to the total cost.

Fortunately, there are other I/A technologies that are just as effective as the best of the DEP-approved systems, and are also much less costly. For instance, the Solviva wood chip filter system, also known as the Solviva BioCarbon filter system, which can be retrofitted on any standard Title 5 system, to reduce nitrogen pollution by more than 90%.

I was apparently the first one to try wood chips for filtering out nitrogen pollution from septic systems, way back in 1978, and it took awhile before others tried it. It just seemed so outlandishly impossible - wood chips! Redworms! Plants! No way would that ever work!!

My wood chip filter was first proven and tested in 1995, overseen by the highly respected engineer, George Wey, and tested at a certified lab. Effluent was pumped from his septic tank and into the Brownfilter (a barrel full of aged wood chips), and from there it drained into the Greenfilter, a 16" deep "fish box" filled with a mix of wood chips, leafmold and soil, and planted with a few spindly end-of-the-sesson orphan plants.

The first surprise was how the plants immediately responded with fresh growth, and then grew to be a splendid healthy little flower garden. But then came the biggest surprise: lab tests showed that this extremely simple system reduced nitrogen by 92.6% - 90.6% . This stunned the engineer even more than it stunned me!!

And the best news is that installation and maintenance of these Solviva I/A systems will probably cost less than $15,000 (certainly less than $20,000), which is 60-80% less than the DEP-approved I/A systems. And the Solviva systems do not require removal of trees and garden, because they do not require big equipment digging big holes.

However, this system does not have DEP stamp of approval, and therefore the local boards of health don't feel they have the authority to permit an I/A system that has not been approved by DEP. (As I showed above, it turns out they do have that authority!)

You may wonder, why has the Solviva system not been approved by DEP?

This is the true story about that:

The Solviva wood chip filter, a.k.a. the Solviva BioCarbon filter system, was actually one of the first to get permit under the DEP I/A pilot program, in 1997.

The first one was installed at the Featherstone Art Center in 1997.

It has 2 levels of woodchip-filled barrels, 8 barrels on each level, the "Brownfilter", followed by the "Greenfilter" garden bed. It reduced nitrogen by a spectacular 86.4% - 96%, and never caused any odors, overflows or other problems.

This was followed, in 1998, with an immense Solviva filter installation at the Black Dog Tavern and Bakery down by the harbor - to remove nitrogen pollution from 2000-6000 gallons sewage per day (!) from the restaurant, bakery, offices, wood working shop, as well as laundry and other fascilities for visiting boaters.

Before designing the system, I asked to see the inside of the septic tanks, and I was delighed to see no sign of grease - obviously the grease trap was working as intended! I knew my system could handle this!

The Solviva BioCarbon Filter at the Black Dog Tavern

The installation consisted of 64 barrels on the upper level, and 64 barrels on the lower level, each with many drain holes.

Filled with aged wood chips, topped off with a dozen redworms in each barrel, from my home flush toilet composting chamber - the Brown Filter.

From the very beginning the smell inside this Brown Filter shed stayed fresh and very pleasant - NO smell of septage or sewage!! Unbelievable, but - there it was! You can't argue with reality! And within just a couple of weeks, there were hundreds of very happy redworms in every barrel, and soon there were thousands.

And the Greenfilter garden, planted with a great variety of closely spaced cottage flowers!!

It quickly grew into the most stunningly beautiful flower garden that just kept on and on flowering even after frost took other gardens - attracting happy bees, butterflies and birds all along.

And then, within a couple of months, disaster struck: the Brownfilter got completely gummed up by grease! I asked them to open up the grease filter: there was no grease! Because of their new policy of using very hot dishwashing water and tons of olive oil - the greese had all slipped right through!! Then I asked them to open up the huge pump chamber preceeding the Brownfilter, and there it was - immense amounts of disgusting foamy, thick, pasty grease!! And this is what was being pumped into the Brownfilter barrels!! It had killed all the redworms by coating their bodies with grease, making it impossible for them to breathe.

Needless to say, the grease-saturated wood chip filter material had to be removed immediately and replaced with more wood chips. And the grease could have so easily been prevented with a simple pre-filter (a dumpster filled with woodchip, easily exchangeable) - BUT, the DEP would not allow any changes without reentering the permit process, and that would take months!

It's a long story about outragously obstructive and destructive government regulations - too long for this website. You can read all about it in my second book, Green Light at the End of the Tunnel, starting on page 90. Also in my first book, SOLVIVA, on page 221.

If the Solviva system had been allowed to stay and work through the grease problem with the simple pre-filter I had in mind (a dumpster filled with woodchip, easily exchangeable), I have no doubt that it would have continued to perform as it had during those 6 months of rigorous testing.

Test Results from the Solviva BioCarbon Filter System at the Black Dog Tavern

And if that had been the case, then Solviva filters could have been installed throughout the town. This would have cost some 70-90% less than central sewering, for both installation and maintenance, and it would have been ever so welcomed by trees, hedgerows and flower borders, especially during the prolonged drought periods that occur almost every summer.

After frost finally took all the annual flowers, they were pulled out, leaving a lovely loose soil, onto which we simply cast rye seed for winter covercropping.

It immediately came up thick and strong, and, as it was warmed, fertilized and irrigated with immense amount of warmish effluent daily, it just kept growing all winter, lush and green grass, even through a blanket of snow. (Ouch - another missed photo op!)

The installation of this Solviva system was far less costly than any other system they could have chosen, and I am certain that if it had not been for the grease problem, it would have continued to worked spectacularly well.

But I saw early on that this DEP pilot program was full of unreasonable, irrelevant and unnecessary requirements that were way beyond what was needed to protect public health, and when I realized that it would end up costing me more than $100,000 to get the required DEP permit, I resigned from the pilot program.

The DEP ended up requiring an immense standard Title 5 septic system, which of course then resumed the immense nitrogen pollution it had been causing before the Solviva filter was installed.

This image shows the anatomy of a standard Title 5 septic system,

vs. a Solviva BioCarbon filter system.

Red represents Nitrogen.

Blue represents cleaned effluent, with 75-99% less nitrogen pollution.

The raised leachingfield above causes just as much nitrogen pollution as the below-ground one.

I seek a permit form the boiard of health to install this Solviva BioCarbon Filter:

This image shows the major watershed areas on the Vineyard, and which ponds they drain into.

If you know where your house is, you can see which pond your septic system is polluting.

Thus there is ample and sufficient proof that

the Solviva wood chip filter is a top-performing I/A nitrogen-removing system,

in full compliance with the Federal and State Clean Water Act law,

and is of absolutely no threat to public health.

Here follow some pages of Solviva designs

from my second book, "Green Light at the End of the Tunnel".

The Solviva Greywater Purification system

Here are 2 different systems that have been approved by DEP,

and are currently being installed on the Vineyard:

The I/A system costs $50,000, and, because it requires large machines for digging large holes, it often means removal of favorite trees, shrubs and gardens.

This Permeable Reactive Barrier (PRB), costs even more. It's a system that relies on soybean oil to remove the nitrogen. This small system, close to the edge of Lagoon Pond, was injected with 3431 gallons of Soybean oil, which requires 52 acres of prime farmland to produce, and the soybean oil lasts only 3-4 years, and then needs a refill.

In my opinion, this is an insane option, and you can imagine the recurring costs.


1 comment

1 Comment

Apr 16

Hi Anna - I love your website. I;ll pass info on. Can you include emails as an option for sharing your web-site? Thank you for all your hard work and not giving up. Cynthia Aguilar

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