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Wastewater Workshop Airs Alternative Solutions for High Nitrogen

The Board of Selectmen heard proposals for dealing with the high levels of nitrogen in Falmouth waters on Monday evening.

At it weekly meeting on Monday night, the Board of Selectmen hosted a workshop aimed at studying alternatives for dealing with the elevated nitrogen levels in Falmouth's ponds and estuaries. The town's wastewater superintendent, representatives from several local environmental groups, and members of the public presented their views on the town's best options for bringing nitrogen levels within federal guidelines.

Wastewater Superintendent Gerald Potamis spoke in favor of Article 17 at the upcoming Town Meeting, which would allocate more than $2.5 million to fund studies, monitoring programs and preliminary design plans for proposed strategies, including $1 million for the design of new sewer systems. Potamis stressed the importance of the town's active involvement in the treatment plan.

“One thing all the alternatives have to recognize,” Potamis said, is “the risk of something failing. It's on us. It's not on” the companies which will handle the engineering and implementation of whatever programs the town decides on.

Former State Representative Matt Patrick spoke in favor of a widely discussed alternative to new sewers, the switch to ecologically friendly toilets. Patrick called the alternative toilets “economically and ecologically superior to sewering,” and said that the main hurdle to their implementation would be public perception.

“We're just unfamiliar with them,” Patrick said. “We really don't know if they'll be accepted by the public. We assume not.”

Patrick called for a demonstration program, in which urine-diverting or composting toilets would be installed in local homes, and feedback from the public would be gathered.

Selectman Melissa Freitag suggested that Patrick's endorsement of eco-friendly toilets as a solution to the town's nitrogen issues was premature, and cited the fact that such systems have yet to gain state permitting in Massachusetts. Freitag suggested that the demonstration program would make sense only if done concurrently with studies of other, more traditional solutions, like sewers.

But Patrick stressed his opinion that the program should be done before even preliminary designs for new sewers. He suggested that any money spent on such designs could either turn out to be a total waste, or influence the town in its future decisions.

Calling alternative toilets “economically and ecologically superior to sewering,” Patrick said that the test program could make Falmouth's decision much easier, and obviate the need for new sewers.

“We might be pleasantly surprised,” he said. “And if we are, it will save us literally hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Patrick was followed by Earle Barnhart, representing the Green Center, a non-profit ecology group in Hatchville. Barnhart stressed the potential power of composting and urine-diverting toilets to control nitrogen in groundwater. After a certain amount of storage time, Barnhart said, human waste becomes free of pathogens, and can then be processed into fertilizer.

Ron Zweig and Ron Smolowitz of the Coonamesset Farm Foundation followed with a presentation about the potential benefits of widespread shellfish aquaculture. Large-scale oyster farming in Falmouth's ponds and estuaries, the two suggested, could alleviate nitrogen levels there, as oysters naturally process any water in which they are present.

As benefits of such a plan, Zweig and Smolowitz cited the flexibility with which oyster farms could be set up and maintained, the low cost and quickness of the shellfish's impact on the water, and the creation of local jobs and food. But they also acknowledged the numerous regulatory hurdles which would have to be overcome before any widespread oyster farming could begin.

The board had previously endorsed Article 17, and did not change its decision after the wastewater workshop. Chairman Brent Putnam expressed the board's evolving outlook on the various strategies for dealing with nitrogen in the environment. “Our commitment is to fixing the nitrogen problem,” Putnam said. “We have to do everything in parallel.”

Article 17 will be voted on at the Annual Town Meeting on April 4.

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