March 29, 2017

Op-Ed: Thoughts on Old Lyme’s Wastewater Situation and Where Blame Lies

With my growing family, my wife and I moved to Old Lyme over 55 years ago.  Then it was another coastal town with a small, stable year-round population and a large vacationer transient group who came here to enjoy the Long Island Sound shoreline beaches for about 10 to 12 weeks in summertime.  Many of these visitors scheduled their time here to mesh with summer school vacations. Some owned cottages, others rented for a week or two, and others for the season.  These cottages were clustered to be within walking distance of The Sound.  The average family had but one car, which the husband took to work, and he would drive to the shore only on weekends.

One example of such a cluster of cottages in Old Lyme was aptly named White Sand Beach.  The sand was dug from borrow pits on Buttonball Road, about a mile inland from the shore.  It was fine, white, and free of clay or soil.  The developer of this community spread this sand on top of a salt-hay Spartina marsh.  Now, Spartina grass is nice to look at but doesn’t lend itself to beach recreation.

This beach community, and others like it, were frequently state chartered beach associations with enumerated powers and responsibilities.  The developer provided paved roads and summer potable water from upland wells.  Water delivery was limited to summer, and many pipelines were hardly buried or were not buried at all.  Winter freezing was not a problem since these pipelines were all drained annually when the summer season ended.  It didn’t matter since the occupants were gone and would not return until the following June.  This pattern repeated itself in several Old Lyme chartered beach associations.

Septic waste disposal was primitive in many instances.  Cottage house lots were rarely large enough to support a conventional septic tank and a leach field plus a reserve leach field.  Some were simply a punctured 55-gallon steel drum that then drained quickly into the ground.  Mother Nature sustained this insult for only 10 or 12 weeks a year, but as the years rolled by – new technologies and new lifestyles put new loads on the natural remediation processes.  Better roads, more autos, longer vacations, and disposal garbage grinders all contributed to additional loading on these already inadequate septic systems.

The thin layer of white sand over a mat of roots and dead Spartina grass and marsh muck is not the ideal soil for aerobic digestion of human waste.  Smells of anaerobic decomposition would come and go, and sometimes the wastewater would actually erupt on the ground around a cottage.

The beach communities limped along in part because there were no drinking water wells near these failing wastewater “systems”.   Remember, potable water was piped in.  Sanitarians knew how to correct the problems, but other forces were also in play.  In Old Lyme, our Registered Sanitarian, operating under the rules of the Connecticut State Health Code, and inhibited by rules from the State Department of Environmental Protection, had few legal tools to combat pollution.  One attempt was by stamping the land records with the words “Summer Use Only”, but after several years, a court found the procedure to be invalid.

As time went on, land values rose, and those summer cottages on postage stamp lots continued to be enlarged, and insulated, and heated, and occupied for longer and longer periods.

Concurrently, several other things were taking place.  The State Legislature that created a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) gave them a blank check for jurisdiction over sewage treatment plants.  Also, they were granted power to regulate wastewater discharges of over 5,000 gallons per day.  The State Health Department retained its control over small flows, but they were restrained from any treatment except the passive septic tank-leach field arrangement.

Furthermore, the DEP also assumed powers over what they called “areas of special concern” and they thus claimed jurisdiction over a neighborhood. Also, they claimed jurisdiction over all wastewater treatment which employs modern technology.  The Health Department must restrict itself to the passive septic tank-leach field treatment.

Now both of our neighbor states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, permit technology which by aeration and circulation, a home septic system could accommodate greater loads.  This may not be done in Connecticut according to the DEP (now renamed DEEP), even by a registered sanitarian whose work is supervised by a health director, and according to the published Health Code of our State Health Department.  This, it seems to me, is simply a turf war in Hartford for control and the desk in the corner office.  Registered Sanitarians, in both the DEEP and the Connecticut State Health Department, have the same qualifications and must pass the same examinations.

I believe that the drive to sewerize in Old Lyme is mostly from people and organizations that have motives far apart from economy and the environment but rather for power or money.  They should recuse themselves from decision-making since their views are tainted.

Take note also that several of the beach associations in Old Lyme are charted by the State Legislature, and the charters clearly state that these associations may, if they wish, control their wastewater.  However, this control would be at their expense.  This is not quite what sewer proponents are advocating.  They seem to want these projects to be town-wide and not at their expense.  Rather, they seem to expect the municipality, or the state or federal government, to expend tax revenues to correct the problems of their increasing usage of lots that were never intended for year-round occupancy.

I believe further that the DEEP is the fox in the henhouse, making and enforcing rules, with little or no supervision or oversight by the legislature.  For example, the State Health Department publishes a health code, but the DEEP has no comparable document.

If the DEEP is to dump its treated effluent from sewage treatment plants into our streams and rivers, that water should be pristine drinking water quality, and if it is pristine, then why is it not replaced into our aquifers or our ground waters?

Dilution is not the solution to pollution, and the DEEP is the culprit.