Why Title 5 Doesn’t Work For the Cape

Title 5 is a Massachusetts regulation that requires the proper siting, construction, and maintenance of septic and other on-site wastewater disposal systems. When it was enacted in 1995 Title 5 was hailed as a model of environmental stewardship, designed to protect the Commonwealth’s waterways and communities from contamination. 

Conventional Septic System Design

Fast-forward to 2021 and Title 5 has proven woefully inadequate to stem the pollution of Cape waterways from both nitrates and phosphates. The problem lies within the application of Title 5 to Sandy Soils found on Cape Cod. 

Soil Differentials: The Cape’s sandy soil is very different from the heavy loamy/clay soils commonly found in Massachusetts, and the type of soil upon which Title 5 was developed. With that loam/clay-type soil, effluent from septic systems has time to dissipate the nitrogen and phosphates, assisted by microorganisms in the soil.

On the Cape, the leach field effluent moves up to five times faster through sandy soil into the groundwater. The faster “percolation rate” reduces the opportunity for nitrogen/nutrient absorption, adding more nitrogen to the water table than any of these bodies of water can handle. [read more

Title 5 Standards: According to the U.S. EPA, “While septic systems are designed to treat and remove pathogens from domestic wastewater, they are not designed to remove nitrogen from wastewater.” [Source: EPA.gov]  No surprise, then, that nitrogen from Title 5-approved septic systems contribute at least 80% of the nutrient pollution in Cape waters. But the nitrogen removal levels [from Title 5 leachfield percolation], “do not remove nearly enough nitrogen” to reverse the degradation of our waterways. [Source: NEWEA, Jordan Gosselin and Bruce Walton, October 2020]

Courtesy Curtis Septic Service

Title 5 Implementation: A clause in Title 5 specifically prohibits the installation of Title 5 septic systems in nitrogen-sensitive areas. But Boards of Health and civil engineers up and down the Cape ignored this clause and have approved thousands of new septic systems since 1995. In fact, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) announced plans to sue towns that are allowing Title 5 septic systems to pass inspection even when they “discharge effluent waste directly or indirectly into the surface water.” [Source: CLF] Yet month after month, new waterfront homes go up and their insufficient septic systems are approved.

We at Save Our Shoestring, along with our fellow Cape-based environmental groups, are advocating for the acceptance of Alternative/Innovative Septic Systems as a standard for future residential and commercial buildings. I/A technologies improve Title 5 systems (through retrofit or new build) by adding an interim step to effluent treatment that actually releases most of the inert nitrogen gas back to the atmosphere instead of discharging it into a leaching field – and hence into groundwater. [Source: NEWEA] More than 2300 I/A systems have been installed on the Cape, and we hope these new technologies will become one of a several options for stopping the nitrogen pollution of our waterways…something Title 5 septic systems are unable to do.

For now, Title 5 remains the law in Massachusetts. Short of lobbying Gov. Charlie Baker for a re-write, we’ll need to focus on keeping towns and inspectors honest when considering new septic installations.

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