TRURO — The board of health approved a series of updated regulations on May 18 governing cesspools, septic systems, and well-water testing. The most significant change is that all cesspools are now deemed to be “failed” systems. All of them must be replaced with modern septic systems by the end of 2023.
Removing cesspools will help protect groundwater and the natural environment from nitrogen contamination, but it will come at a cost: new septic systems can run anywhere from $12,000 to $50,000, according to Brian Baumgaertel, director of the Mass. Alternative Septic System Test Center in Mashpee.
There is a county loan program that can help finance the cost, but at 5-percent interest over 20 years, a new system can still cost a home owner $200 to $300 a month. The expense to individual home owners is one reason it has taken so long to make the change, board of health chair Tracey Rose told the Truro Select Board. But the time has come, she said, “to take responsibility for our actions, and keep moving forward with compassion.” Rose said she does not see having the town wait any longer to mandate removal as an option.
Cesspools have been illegal to construct, but “grandfathered in,” that is, permitted to remain in existing locations, since 1978. Almost 45 years later, there are still around 200 properties with active cesspools in Truro, according to Health Agent Emily Beebe. Upgrades to modern systems are mandated only when a property is sold, or when major renovations occur, according to the state’s Title 5 law. Intergenerational transfers do not trigger the upgrade requirement.
The primary contaminant that comes from improperly treated sewage is nitrogen, which can act as a fertilizer in fresh and saltwater areas. A sudden growth-and-death cycle of algae follows, and its decay can strip the watery environment of oxygen, creating “dead zones” where no animal life can survive.
Other measures adopted by the board of health include a new mandatory inspection regime for all “shared septic systems,” which includes motels, cottage colonies, condo complexes, and campgrounds. They’ll be inspected every three years, and, to pass, must have been recently pumped out.
Both cesspools and septic systems are supposed to be routinely pumped out, but it’s rare for people to actually do so, Rose and Beebe told the select board. It costs just a few hundred dollars; it extends the life of a septic system and also reduces nitrogen output. “We try to inform residents of the importance of maintaining their septic system,” said Rose, “but it’s a boring topic, and most people don’t hear it.”
As far as requiring pump-outs for residential systems town-wide, Beebe said that’s been discussed. “I think we’ll go there; we’re just not ready yet,” she told the select board.
The other big change to the town’s regulations is that many property owners will be required to get well-water tests. Building permits, septic inspections, and seasonal or short-term rental registration would trigger the test requirement. According to the Cape Cod Commission, 80 percent of Truro’s 3,200 housing units are rented seasonally. That should add up to a lot of well-water tests.
Septic inspections and well-water tests can make home owners nervous, because they’re not merely measurements. Any deficiencies discovered become the legal obligation of the home owner to fix. Often pumping out an overloaded septic system is the solution, but if a wellhead actually has to be moved, it can cost between $5,000 and $10,000, according to board of health vice chair Jason Silva.
Silva and Rose have both argued that the Cape and Islands Water Protection Fund, which was established in 2018 and funded with a 2.75-percent surcharge on hotel, campground, and short-term rental bookings, should be used to help individual home owners pay for upgrades that these new rules will require. But the fund isn’t currently structured to make payments to individuals, according to Beebe.
“The legislature and the powers-that-be are trying to figure out how this money is going to get distributed and allocated,” Rose told the select board. “We need to make sure Truro is well represented in these conversations,” she added.
Given the scope and potential costs of the town’s water quality measures, public comment to the board of health has been muted. Only a few people spoke in the remote meetings, and only a handful of emails were received, according to Beebe.
The Docs for Truro Safe Water, a group of seven M.D.s and Ph.D.s who presented a 40-page report on water quality when the Cloverleaf affordable housing development was on the agenda, didn’t appear at all for the hearings on the new regulations. Their website, docstruro.org, appears to now be offline.
There is, however, a petitioned article on Truro’s town warrant this year that would make the board of health an elected instead of an appointed board (and another that would turn the zoning board of appeals into an elected board). This means new regulations won’t be up for a vote at town meeting, but the board that just created them will be.