TRURO — The 100 Truro residents who have cesspools will have three years to hire engineers, get permits, and install new Title 5 septic systems if a proposed board of health regulation is adopted.
The board of health on Jan. 4 approved a draft of a ban on cesspools by Dec. 31, 2023. These wastewater pits discharge nitrogen into the ground in high amounts — from 60 to 120 milligrams per liter (mg/L), according to Brian Baumgaertel, director of the Mass. Alternative Septic System Test Center. A Title 5 tank can discharge effluent at 35 mg/L of nitrogen to a leaching field. Once it passes through the leaching field, the nitrogen level is down to 25 mg/L.
Cesspools, which are concrete pits in the ground with holes where waste flows directly into the dirt, are automatically defined as “failed” septic systems and must be replaced when ownership of a home is transferred. But properties passed down from one generation to the next don’t trigger the requirement to upgrade. That is why so many properties in town still have cesspools — about 100, Health Agent Emily Beebe told the board of health.
Truro has been buzzing with water quality discussions related to the Cloverleaf, the 39-unit affordable housing development near Pond Village that was given a comprehensive permit on Jan. 14. The new development will have a system expected to bring the nitrogen content of its wastewater down to 5 mg/L.
Pond Village has a history of water quality problems, due partially to poorly maintained septic systems and to five cesspools in that neighborhood, Beebe said.
It’s not the first time the board of health has discussed banning cesspools. In 2016, the board wanted to set a cesspool sunset date of 2022, said Tracey Rose, board of health chair. The Cloverleaf project and Pond Village neighbors’ concerns spurred renewed attention to the issue.
The board of health, which must hold a public hearing to finalize its regulation, voted to have cesspools replaced with Title 5 systems in the ground by the end of 2023.
Replacement costs can run as high as $50,000, although Barnstable County offers a loan program at 5-percent interest over 20 years to finance the expense, Beebe said.
“The Barnstable County loan program is so well run,” Beebe said. They walk the home owners through the process of permitting; even changes to landscaping, plumbing, and electrical systems related to the septic upgrade can be added to the loan, she added.
It’s unknown if any other Massachusetts towns have imposed a similar regulation. Morgan Clark, Provincetown’s health director, said she had not heard of any, but she applauded Truro’s proposal.