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MCZM Newsletter Article on Septic Test Center

Septic System Test Center Results Released

By Dr. Joe Costa, BBP*

The first results from the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center are in and four factsheets are hot off the presses. This July, Environmental Affairs Secretary Bob Durand mailed the fact sheets, which detail the results for four different septic system technologies, to Boards of Health throughout Massachusetts. Reviews of three additional technologies are expected to be released this September.

The Septic System Test Center was constructed at the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod by the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program (BBP), a unit of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, in collaboration with Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Barnstable County Department of Health and the Environment (BCDHE), and UMass Dartmouth's School for Marine Science and Technology. The Test Center was established to help meet the Commonwealth's need for cost-effective wastewater disposal systems suitable for sites with limited space, poor soils, and high water tables, or where advanced pollutant removal is required. The Center's mission is to: 1) evaluate the performance and operation costs of new and innovative wastewater disposal technologies in a carefully controlled and unbiased manner and provide this information to regulators and consumers, and 2) assist vendors in getting their technologies approved for use in Massachusetts more quickly and at a lesser cost. The Test Center was completed in 1998, with the first technologies installed in 1999. Three replicates of each technology are installed at the facility, and tested for two years.

The idea for the Test Center originated in the mid-1990s. Both BBP and Barnstable County were evaluating innovative wastewater treatment technologies at a number of residences and promoting their use in the region. We recognized that we would have more success by combining our efforts and establishing a centralized testing facility. We also recognized that the success of the Test Center would be improved if DEP were a partner, and was willing to reduce certain permit testing requirements for vendors participating in the program. With BCDHE, DEP, and UMass Dartmouth on board, BBP secured a half million dollars in grant funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to construct and operate the facility. Later, additional funds were received from DEP and the Massachusetts Environmental Trust.

Both Boards of Health and residents will find the results from the Test Center interesting. The first four fact sheets cover three innovative treatment technologies and one conventional system, which was designed to meet the state sewage disposal system regulations known as Title 5. One of the innovative technologies tested was an experimental design that failed to operate as expected, and the system was withdrawn after one year of testing. A special focus of BBP is the improved nitrogen removal efficiencies of innovative technologies, a need identified in the Buzzards Bay Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan. Two of the technologies tested, the Waterloo Biofilter® and the BioMicrobic's MicroFast® System, discharged less than half the nitrogen of a conventional Title 5 system. These results will help planners evaluate the use of innovative wastewater technologies to protect nitrogen-sensitive coastal waters and other areas from the cumulative impacts of septic systems.

These fact sheets represent interim results of the first year of testing. The fact sheets, as well as information on other alternative wastewater treatment and disposal technologies usable in Massachusetts, can be found at the BBP Web site, These systems are not the only innovative technologies approved for use in Massachusetts, and a full listing of permitted technologies can be found at the DEP Web site at

*Joe Costa, BBP's Executive Director, led the effort to create and fund the Alternative Septic System Test Center and develop the system performance fact sheets for public distribution.