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 dishwashers. 

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.