As Jennifer Loughran led a tour of Barnstable Clean Water Coalition’s Shubael Pond Project, she called a newly installed NitROE wastewater treatment septic system a “living laboratory.”
“Maybe watching a septic installation isn’t always exciting,” said Loughran, project manager at the coalition. “But just thinking about the possibilities that these systems entail is mind-blowing.”
Zenas Crocker, coalition executive director, noted that all over Cape Cod, “the water problems have 80 to 85% to do with septic-related issues. We believe this system will be one of the key solutions to cleaning up area waters.”
The coalition, formerly Three Bays Preservation Inc., is working to provide 15 NitROE systems to the Shubael Pond neighborhood of Marstons Mills in a collaborative project with the town of Barnstable and others that include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Geological Survey and The Nature Conservancy.
The project is part of a two-year pilot program designed to test and monitor the system’s ability to reduce nutrients in the area’s groundwater. The project will also identify stormwater-related issues.
The initiative is one of a few that Barnstable Clean Water Coalition is pursuing, with help from grants and environmental departments and organizations, to make a difference in efforts to clean up Cape Cod waters. While towns are in various phases of wastewater planning that could take years to realize, alternative technologies are being pursued at the same time — to potentially make a difference sooner and in certain areas. What proves successful in Barnstable could have applications elsewhere.
An ‘elegant’ new system
Although concepts behind the Shubael Pond Project began in 2019 — in an area already troubled by intermittent water-quality problems that closed area ponds — the NitROE received a permit for provisional approval from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in June. Beginning in August, the coalition installed six NitROE units within the 350-home area that contributes to the Marstons Mills subwatershed — all on the coalition’s dime. With retrofit and full Title 5 septic system replacement procedures, the cost was between $20,000 to $30,000 per land parcel.
Crocker calls the NitROE system, developed by a local company called KleanTu, “elegant in its simplicity.” The machine, which can retrofit into an existing Title 5 septic system, is located between the septic tank and the leech chamber, where it focuses on removing nitrogen, carbon and suspended solids.
The 2,000-gallon NitROE tank largely relies on gravity and small amounts of electricity for its air pump, and includes two sections — the first a limestone aeration chamber, which converts ammonia to nitrate; and the second holding wood chips, which converts nitrate to nitrogen gas.
With sampling ports also located closer to the ground’s surface, the project can additionally focus on contaminants of emerging concern, including roughly 200 different chemicals, Crocker said.
According to coalition statistics, current Title 5 septic systems in use on the Cape only remove 20 to 30% of generated nitrogen., Crocker said the new technology is a “powerful tool” to confront the challenges of nitrogen overload in the groundwater by removing 80% to 90% of the systems’ generated nitrogen.
“We don’t think it replaces all sewer expansion — there are high-density areas, and commercial sites for the buildings that still need municipal treatment,” Crocker said. “But we are focused on executing nature-based solutions without waiting for municipal treatment that could take 20 to 30 years to come to this area.”
If data confirms NitROE systems can maintain nitrogen levels in the area’s groundwater below roughly 10 milligrams — a number Crocker calls “the gold standard” — the coalition can apply for “general use approval.” That type of approval could eventually bring NitROE systems to towns across the Cape, incorporating them into wastewater management plans.
Proponents say that strategy could impact the health of lakes, streams, estuaries and waterways across the region.
Starting new discussions
Brian Baumgaertel, senior environmental specialist and director of the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center in Buzzards Bay, said the data “looked promising” before Shubael Pond Project broke ground. He is providing technical support for the coalition, and developing individual monitoring protocols for the pilot program.
The NitROE systems were originally developed by KleanTu at the test center, where the technology was fine-tuned through a grant provided by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. Baumgaertel said he participated in the roughly five-year process.
“We’ve done sampling on the NitROE here as a third party — and we’ve seen a lot of the data out in the field that does indicate that the system performs quite well,” Baumgaertel said. “Definitely in comparison to a lot of the other innovative alternative technologies.”
Historically, Baumgaertel explained, first-generation alternative septic systems didn’t perform “much better” than existing Title 5 septic systems and were costly to install and maintain. With the more recent iterations of innovative alternative systems, he said, homeowners can move — at a fraction of the cost — toward a range of what treatment plants are able to do.
“Because the older technologies didn’t perform to this level, I think a lot of the towns were starting to write off the technology as an option,” Baumgaertel said. “But I think at this point, the NitROE system, and the Shubael Pond Project, started new discussions about how all these systems help people.”
While the coalition is working in Barnstable, Loughran said it’s important to remember that water quality is not just a Barnstable problem. “We’re all independent towns and we will do independent things to help our own towns but when it comes to the health of our water we need to be in this together,” she said.
‘No time to wait’
Mark Forest, Barnstable County commissioner and Yarmouth selectman, recently toured the Shubael Pond Project, and said the Cape as a whole needs to “invest genuine interest” in the work of the Barnstable Clean Water Coaltion.
“The real focus is on where can we expand our role at the county to help support more of these projects — which we want to do,” Forest said. “We need to validate the performance of an innovative technology, and we need to essentially have in place an organization that has significant credibility with the regulators. Because ultimately, it’s going to be the regulators that make the decision on whether or not an alternative septic system technology is going to be allowed or permitted.”
As new septic system technology continues to prove its worth, Baumgaertel said, towns across the Cape are already beginning to take another look at incorporating systems like the NitROE into town-by-town wastewater management plans.
Wellfleet’s wastewater management plan, for example, “relies heavily” on using innovative systems, he said, and Falmouth is looking at using such systems in certain parts of town along with its large sewering system.
Although the town of Barnstable is working with the coalition to integrate alternative approaches to wastewater treatment, Bill Weston, 78, a Marstons Mills resident and Shubael Pond Project participant, said there’s “no time to wait” for the town of Barnstable’s comprehensive wastewater management plant — a multi-phased 30-year plan estimated that will cost $1.4 billion.
“Everyone’s aware that there’s this 30-year plan, but I think something’s got to be done before then,” he said. “I’ve lived 50 years on Cape Cod and the number of people has tripled so consequently, the amount of pollution comes along with it. If something isn’t done soon we are going to go to the point of no return.”
With Shubael Pond and other Cape kettle-hole ponds already facing intermittent summer shutdowns due to PFAS contamination and cyanobacteria-ignited algae blooms, he said, town leadership needs to “find a better way fast.”
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of thousands of manmade chemicals linked to health problems ranging from immune system issues to cancer.
The NitROE technology “seems to be cutting-edge and I think it’s a game changer,” Weston said. “I’m glad that the coalition is doing something — they are taking a logical step and I’m excited to see how it turns out.”
Despite the initial compelling data, Crocker said, there’s “no quick fix” for contaminants already present in the area’s groundwater. He said he will be working closely with the EPA’s office of research and development, which has a network of monitoring wells that will begin to project changes in groundwater quality as the neighborhood septic systems are deployed.
“The EPA’s work is critical to understanding how the NitROE technology will impact the area’s water systems,” Crocker said.
A cranberry bog project
As the pond project moves forward and those involved await data, the coalition is also pursuing other clean-water initiatives. One involves cranberry bog restorations.
Through a recent $750,000 grant from the EPA’s Southeast New England Program, coalition deputy director Casey Chatelain said the organization can begin developing a 56-acre bog pilot restoration program, which will include water sampling at 10 stations along the Marstons Mills River.
Because each bog restoration is different, based on a myriad of projected goals and outcomes, Chatelain said, she will be working with local cranberry farmers to discuss conservation easements and possible bog buyouts.
Still in its early days, the bog restoration is the first pilot watershed grant in history, with the coalition benefitting from $150,000 per year for five years. For Chatelain, who will spearhead the pilot project, the “primary driver” with the bog restoration is to improve water quality, but also raise awareness through advocacy and education.
“A lot of people look at the water and don’t see anything wrong with it but we need more people to advocate for clean water,” she said.