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Wastewater Home Page | Call to Action | Test Results & References
Wastewater Management (chapter from the Solviva Book)


An Urgent Call to Action Regarding Wastewater Management

Note: This call to action is directed to the people of Massachusetts,
but it is equally applicable to all states across the US.

The purpose of this letter is two-fold:

1. To remind officials and inform the public about the devastating pollution that is harming our environment and health, and that is being caused by the Title 5 septic regulations that are instituted and enforced by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) - and

2. To propose new simplified regulations that would result in 80-90% reduction of this pollution, as well as 80-90% reduction of the cost of wastewater management, without any risk of harm to the environment or public health.

Background and Problems

Household wastewater contains very high levels of substances such as microbes and nitrogen, that, when released, constitute a serious threat to public health and the environment. Therefore the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has instituted certain regulations for the management of household wastewater, called the Title 5 septic regulations. In a typical Title 5 septic system the wastewater flows first into an underground septic tank, where the solid matter is retained, and from there the liquid effluent runs through a branching perforated pipe system laid in underground leaching trenches, which release the effluent into the groundwater. The regulations require a minimum separation of 4 feet between the bottom of the leaching field and the top of the underlying groundwater, because this amount of filtration through subsoil appears to adequately degrade the microbes that can cause various human diseases. However, there is one harmful substance that current standard Title 5 systems are incapable of removing: the nitrogen. The resulting excessive release of nitrogen constitutes a serious threat to both the environment and public health.

Facts about the dangers of nitrogen released by Title 5 septic systems:

Fact: Household wastewater contains very high levels of nitrogen, about 50 ppm (parts per million), derived from human body waste, mostly urine. Each person releases over 10 pounds of nitrogen per year. Thus an average family releases over 30 pounds of nitrogen per year into their septic system. To put thirty pounds of nitrogen into comprehensible perspective: it is the amount of nitrogen that is contained in 600 pounds of standard 5-10-5 fertilizer (the first figure represents 5% nitrogen, thus 100 pounds contains 5 pounds of nitrogen). A standard large bag of fertilizer is 40 pounds, thus 600 pounds of fertilizer is 15 bags. Thus the septic system of one average family releases the nitrogen equivalent of 15 bags of fertilizer.

Fact: A septic system built in accordance with DEP regulations releases this nitrogen deep into the subsoil, below the reach of the roots of trees, shrubs, lawns and flowers that could actually absorb most of it, and indeed benefit from it. Instead, over 90% of the nitrogen (which is water-soluble) is released into the bottom of leaching trenches or pits, often 5-10 feet deep underground. From there the nitrogen goes straight into the groundwater, where it cannot biodegrade or diminish. All of it then travels with the groundwater at the rate of about 1-3 feet per day, toward the nearest pond, brook, lake, harbor or marsh. It matters not whether this body of water is 50 feet or 10 miles away from the septic system - all of this nitrogen, along with all the nitrogen from the dozens or hundreds or thousands of other septic systems located within the watershed area, enters the body of water.

Fact: You could not, if you tried, devise a more effective way than a Title 5 septic system to inject the largest amount of nitrogen into our groundwater and aquatic ecosystems.

Two Problems result from nitrogen released from septic systems into the groundwater:

Problem No.1: Excessive nitrogen harms the enviroment
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for all plants, but aquatic ecosystems get overwhelmed by the catastrophic amounts that leach into the groundwater from standard Title 5 septic systems. As stated above, the nitrogen flows with the groundwater at a rate of 1-3 feet per day, and when it reaches open water it is quickly consumed by algae. The excessive nitrogen triggers the algae to rapidly multiply, causing rampant infestations that block sunlight. The algae have short life spans, and soon die and decompose, which reduces essential oxygen. The reduction of light and oxygen results in sickness and death to fish and shellfish as well as to desirable aquatic plants, and beaches become unfit for recreation due to the accumulating masses of slimy and foul-smelling dead algae that are washed ashore.

Problem No.2: Excessive nitrogen harms public health
Nitrogen levels higher than 10 ppm in drinking water can cause methemoglobinemia, which destroys the ability of red blood cells to transport oxygen. As a result, vital tissues, including the brain, receive less oxygen than they need, which can lead to brain damage or death by suffocation. This poses a special threat to babies under the age of six months ("blue-baby syndrome"), not only to formula-fed babies but also those who are breast-fed, for it is passed from the mother through the breast milk. Others who are threatened by drinking water high in nitrogen include pregnant women with a particular enzyme deficiency (which can lead to birth defects), adults with reduced stomach acidity or certain hereditary conditions. In addition, it is associated with an increased risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
The groundwater flows in one direction under the land, and at first glance it might make sense that DEP regulations require that your well be located upstream from your septic system. But your neighbors' septic systems are thus upstream from your well. It is estimated that 10-20% of US wells are contaminated with nitrogen levels that exceed the EPA recommended limits of 10 ppm.
Since standard septic systems release nitrogen into the groundwater at 50 ppm or more, the DEP regulations require a minimum lot size for the purpose of enabling rainwater to dilute this dangerous nitrogen level to below 10 ppm. But these calculations are unreliable because of factors such as high seasonal wastewater generation, lower-than-average rainfall, or underlying layers of clay or rock, which can raise the nitrogen levels to above 10 ppm.
(See references at bottom of this page, regarding harm to public health and environment caused by nitrogen)

What is DEP doing to reduce nitrogen release?

Among the many charges of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the task of protecting our environment and our health. Wastewater management thus falls under DEP jurisdiction, and on-site septic systems are governed under DEP Title 5 regulations.

During the 1980s it became clear to the authorities that Title 5 septic systems constituted a serious threat to the environment and public health. After long and ferocious debates, the new Title 5 regulations came out in the mid-90s, but, they addressed primarily the release of disease-causing microbes, not the nitrogen. In fact, the upgraded Title 5 septic regulations release some 50-75% more nitrogen into the groundwater than the old regulations.

Explanation: a leaching trench or pit gradually develops a waterproof liner, a mat formed by algae that feed on the nitrogen. This mat first covers the bottom and gradually over the years grows up the sides. However, this liner rarely grows all the way up to the surface, because as it reaches the top 18" or so, the sides are kept permeable by the action of earthworms, microorganisms and roots. A telltale sign indicates when a septic systems has developed an effective liner, because grass and trees growing in the vicinity are exceptionally healthy, thriving on the nutrient-rich water to which they have access. Since much of the nitrogen is absorbed by these plants, and some even escapes as gas into the atmosphere, an estimated 50-75% less nitrogen gets down into the groundwater (depending on what plants grow around the area).

The new Title 5 regulations require leaching trenches that spread out over a much larger area, which therefore take a much longer time to develop the liner that reduces the nitrogen release. These new regulations do not apply only to new septic systems, but DEP requires, under threat of heavy fines, that old septic systems must be removed and new ones installed. In fact, you cannot sell your home, or add a bedroom or a bathroom, or put plumbing in your studio, without upgrading your septic system.

Furthermore, not only do the new Title 5 regulations greatly increase the nitrogen release, but they also cost far more to install, and they disturb/destroy far more landscaping and gardens. I know of many who have had to remove 10-30 beautiful old shade trees and spend $10,000-$50,000 to replace their old septic systems that showed no sign of overflowing. A friend of mine is currently being ordered to upgrade her old septic system, and was shocked when the bid came in at $30,000.

There are, however, some sectors of the economy that are benefiting from the new regulations: the engineers and the installers, and the industries that make heavy earthmoving equipment, concrete and gravel. Also, the DEP and the local health departments have grown with countless new jobs to enforce the new regulations, at tax payers' expense.
But perhaps the sector that has grown the most of all as a result of the new regulations is the large sewage consulting/engineering firms. They are hired by small towns all across the state and the nation, who have been ordered by the DEP, with threats of heavy fines for non-compliance: "your town does not have the space for the new Title 5 systems. Put in a central sewage system, or else…."
In my small home community of Martha's Vineyard, millions of dollars have been spent on one consulting/engineering firm after another.
The latest regulations for central sewage treatment facilities require a reduction of nitrogen release to below 10 ppm, which is good. But these facilities require a large amount of land area, use toxic chemicals, and are tremendously expensive to construct and operate. One of the small towns on this island, Edgartown (pop. 3500 swelling to around 15,000 for the 3 summer months) has spent over 20 million dollars for central sewering. Ironically, this has been fraught with problems such as periodic overflows into people's basements and nauseating odors that gag the neighbors.
Another town, Oak Bluffs (about the same size) has just completed their new system, amid furor over rising costs (will probably exceed 18 million) and bulky metal control boxes dotting the quaint historic village. Many home owners now have to abandon their new $10,000-30,000 upgraded septic systems and pay over $10,000 to hook into the new sewage system, plus an annual user-fee of more than $1000. Businesses will pay much more. And taxes have gone way up.
A third town of about the same size, Vineyard Haven, is facing the same fate.

What alternatives are available?

There are on-site septic system technologies that are available today that greatly reduce nitrogen release, and the best ones reduce it by 80-90%. The best also require far less space than standard Title 5 systems. In fact, they really do not require any space at all because the effluent is released in shallow, narrow trenches winding among the existing trees, shrubs and flower borders, to their great benefit. In addition, they can cost 80-90% less than either standard on-site Title 5 systems or central sewering.

The DEP is well aware of the fact that the Title 5 septic system regulations result in the release of nitrogen levels that are dangerous to both public health and the environment.
DEP is also well aware of the fact that proven technologies now exist that greatly reduce this nitrogen release.
Thus, DEP has instituted regulations for allowing the development of these new nitrogen-reducing technologies, under the name of: "the Innovative/Alternative (I/A) Technologies Pilot Program"

So, the question is: "Why, since it is obvious that these new I/A technologies release far less nitrogen than the standard Title 5 septic systems, why are they not the norm everywhere?"

GAO, the Government Accounting Office, published a revealing report in 1994 (#RCED-94-109), addressing this question. It concluded that there exist "barriers to their use, primarily a lack of knowledge on the part of the engineers and state and local officials about the alternatives' applicability, performance and cost. Other barriers include (1) financial disincentives within the private sector to designing and/or constructing facilities that employ alternative systems, and (2) restrictive state and local codes and regulations." And: "State and local codes and regulations can restrict or actually prohibit the use of alternative technologies because codes contain specifications that apply to conventional technologies." And: "Engineers remain largely unfamiliar with treatment alternatives." And, perhaps most damning of all: "Engineers' fees are calculated as a percentage of net construction costs. Thus, even though the percentage is somewhat smaller for a higher cost project, a $10 million project will generate a design fee of $640,000, while a $2 million project will generate a fee of only $150,000. In addition, it is more work for the engineers to design a system they have no prior experience with, far less work to design a system the same as many others they have already done."

Thus, DEP with one hand claims to encourage I/A nitrogen-reducing technologies, but with the other hand creates powerful barriers that prevent their use.
I shall illustrate with my own personal experience:
I have been developing alternative on-site septic systems for over 20 years, the Solviva Biocarbon Wastewater Filter Systems. These systems work by filtering the wastewater in accordance with the Laws of Nature, through biocarbon mulch (a Brownfilter consisting of leaves, wood chip and sawdust, with earthworms and other bio-organisms), and through plants (a Greenfilter consisting of grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees). These systems are capable of reducing nitrogen release by 80-90%. I know this for a fact, because I have the test results to prove it, from variations of this system that I have done for many years. In addition, these systems offer far better degradation and reduction of harmful microorganisms and toxins because they provide some 4-10 feet more filtration depth than a standard Title 5 leaching field.

Furthermore, the cost of these systems can be 80-90% less than an upgraded Title 5 system or central sewering. For instance, in order to upgrade an existing septic system, instead of spending $10,000-50,000 for a new nitrogen-releasing Title 5 septic system, all you need to do is make a cut in the outflow pipe of the septic tank, connect the pipe to a small underground tank with a pump controlled by a switch on a float valve, and connect this to a perforated pipe that runs in a shallow biocarbon-filled trench along the roots of your surrounding landscaping. The total cost of this installation would be less than $2000, done by professionals. The result would be 80-90% less nitrogen release into the groundwater, and very happy plants.

But, because of DEP regulations governing innovative/alternative septic systems, the cost of getting such a system is prohibitive, more expensive than a standard Title 5 system.
First DEP requires full engineering (topographical mapping, groundwater depth, soil classification, as well as a complete design, etc) by a professional engineer. You would be lucky to find an engineer willing to do the extra work on an innovative system (because by the definition of the word "innovative", he knows nothing about it), and put his stamp on it (because legally he becomes responsible). I have been turned down by several engineers, fearful for their jobs, and because they have plenty of work just engineering business-as-usual systems. The cost of this engineering work would run at least $3000.
Then there are the permits from DEP: up to $10,000 for the Pilot Program permit, which took over a year to get from the date of application.
Then there is the testing and monitoring required by DEP: monthly for the first year, quarterly thereafter, for a total cost of some $3-4000, per system.

But that is not all, because then there is the solid matter, what DEP calls the "residuals" or "sludge". In the case of the Solviva systems, this solid matter is a most desirable compost, odor-free, friable and with excellent well-balanced nutrients, and with toxins that have tested by certified labs to be 100-1000 times less than is allowed by DEP for land application. But, DEP regulations require that this compost be tested with the same protocol as the sludge from municipal sewage and septage treatment facilities: a full TCLP test for over 50 of the most toxic substances in our society: pesticides, herbicides, and industrial toxins, including PCB, 2,4.6-Tribromophenol, Lindane, Heptachlor, Chlordane, Toxaphene, Toluene, Tetrachlorethylene.
I asked the DEP: "Why? This is from wastewater that comes from bathrooms, laundry and kitchens. How could it contain these toxins?" The answer from the decision makers was: "we wouldn't know unless it was tested." This test cost around $1300, and the results, as I expected, showed "below detectable levels" on all these substances. And this is not just a one-time test; DEP requires that every batch be so tested.
To top it off, even though they now know that this compost is 100% free of anything harmful, DEP now wants me to pay $1050 for a permit to place this compost on my land, and this permit may take 6-12 months to get.


It is clear from abundant available evidence that the standard DEP Title 5 septic regulations release levels of nitrogen that cause great harm to the environment and public health. We need to reduce this nitrogen release 80-90%, and we need to do it NOW. And we have the technologies available today, at a fraction of the cost of central sewering.

Therefore, new policies need to be immediately adopted by DEP, as follows:

Standard nitrogen-releasing Title 5 septic systems should be discouraged,
and Nitrogen-reducing technologies should be encouraged
for all on-site septic systems.

The following is a proposal for a petition
for the purpose of creating new regulations in order and protect public health and the environment.
Your input is urgently requested and will be gratefully received and considered.

the Governor, legislators and the people of Massachusetts:

Because septic systems built in accordance with DEP regulations release large amounts
of nitrogen into the groundwater, which threatens the environment and public health,
Because technologies now exist that are capable of reducing this nitrogen release
by 80-90%, without spending millions of dollars on central sewage treatment facilities,
And because DEP regulations governing the development and use of these new
technologies cause undue economic hardship and harmful delays,

Therefore, the following proposal is presented
in order to facilitate the process of instituting and assessing
nitrogen-reducing wastewater technologies:

1. Any person who wants to install technology for reducing the release of nitrogen from their septic system shall submit a brief plan to the local Board of Health.

2. The Board of Health shall issue a permit without delay, for a fee of $500, and shall notify the DEP.

3. The Board of Health shall have the right to inspect the site at any time, without notice, and shall give warning in writing if any overflow, odors, flies or other nuisances are observed. The first warning shall be accompanied by a $200 fine, the second warning a $300 fine, the third warning a $500 fine. If after three warnings the Board of Health again finds the presence of nuisance, it shall have the right to withdraw the permit and order the system to be terminated.

4. The Board of Health shall have the right to collect any samples at any time, and shall send these to be tested in accordance with any DEP requirements. These tests shall be paid for by DEP (this will be paid for without raising taxes, because millions will be saved within DEP as a result of this proposal being enacted).
The owner and installer of the system shall receive copies of all test results.

This 4-point process will take us where want to go, namely to a great reduction of nitrogen release into our drinking water and aquatic ecosystems, without ANY risk to public health or the environment.
We ask that these new regulations be adopted without delay.

For photographs and more detailed information, GO TO the following pages:
Wastewater Homepage || Wastewater Management || Test Results & References

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How to contact Anna Edey, Solviva, Trailblazer Press:
18 Solviva Road, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
Tel: (508) 693-3341- - Cell phone: (774) 563-0898 - - Fax: (508) 693-2228
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