What was tremendously frustrating about the process was that my house was not
serviced by a conventional toilet system at all! Instead, waste was handled by
a Clivus Multrum composting toilet system http://www.clivusmultrum.com/ whose
unconventional regulatory status was not addressed in the rules. The leach
field requirement was necessitated NOT to accommodate septic system “liquids”,
but for the non-septic “grey water” coming from sinks, showers, laundry, and
The Clivus system uses woodchips in an odorless tank in the basement to process
the waste, and the grey water stream is segregated and typically used for
irrigation and fertilization of landscaping plants and in my case was going to
be pumped into a nearby flower garden. The regulators could not be convinced
that the grey water was free of pathogens, and refused to issue a permit unless
I built a huge, costly and unnecessary leaching field.
Fast forward in time to Martha’s Vineyard, where excessive nitrogen, primarily
from urine, is getting into the groundwater and seriously affecting the health
of the Vineyard Great Ponds. Eighty percent of Vineyard residents have onsite
systems that are contributing to this problem, and because of the relatively
thinly-settled nature of the Vineyard, centrally-sewering these properties will
never be cost-effective.
Over the past seven years, Wes and his partner’s denitrifying system was tested
extensively at a pilot facility run by the state at Otis Air National Guard
base. The system was getting promising results removing 80-90% of all the
nitrogen entering the ground water. The innovative design involved using oyster
shells, sulfur, and aerated small plastic bird cage shaped gizmos in the
system’s primary and secondary treatment chambers.
Wes had two priorities: (1) removing as much nitrogen as possible, and (2)
making the system affordable to the homeowner. The challenge he faced was that,
while the test process allowed him to do the considerable tweaking necessary to
improve the system design and efficiency, the process took time and money. He
ultimately found that testing and monitoring requirements for these
“innovative/alternative” (“I/A”) systems in Massachusetts were simply too much
for him. After seven years, he is still years away from being licensed to sell
his system in this State. The project has come to an end.
Wes cited, “a hellish process for approval” where, even if a system worked
perfectly and all the tests were positive, the regulatory process would still
take a solid seven more years just to get an approved license.
His story was sounding frustratingly familiar to me.
He said that the extensive testing and monitoring was very expensive and he
ended up paying for most of those costs and most of the test systems’
installation costs out of his own pocket. He was unable to find any backers and
eventually his resources were exhausted.
Where to go from here? Planners and water scientists indicate that tackling the
overall nitrogen loading “budget” for the Island of Martha’s Vineyard is best
done by sewering those down-Island areas that were densely developed over the
last several decades. That still leaves much of the rest of the Island tied to
residential septic technology that will continue to contribute nitrogen, though
more diffusely, to groundwater and to our ponds.
So the need for a proven I/R system remains. The hope is that entrepreneurs
like Wes will have the stamina and the financial backers to be in it for the
long haul required under current regulations. Better still would be a
commitment from the state authorities to identify ways to streamline the I/A
approval process while still protecting public health and safety.