Old Lyme Wastewater

Years ago homes here discharged their wastewater into cesspools. A cesspool is a very primitive digester of septic waste. Cesspools work, but now as we use much more water for bathing, laundry, garbage disposal, dishwashing and flushing toilets, we had to improve the cesspool. Today it has morphed for most residences into a septic tank, compartmented, and connected to a leach field of perforated pipe that permits the water portion to re-enter the earth where digestion continues naturally. Solids that float in the septic tank (called scum) and those that sink (called sludge) accumulate in the septic tank and periodically they are pumped out for further treatment elsewhere. In Old Lyme, pump-outs are ordained to be performed not less frequently than once in seven years. My home system accumulated two inches of scum and thirteen inches of sludge in about twenty years with an average of five people in residence. Other septic systems in Old Lyme are pumped much more frequently.

The pumped out wastewater and solids were then taken to a municipal lagoon facility where aerobic decomposition and evaporation and slow seepage into the soil further reduced pathogens, nutrients and volume. The end product of these septic lagoons was then buried in landfills or incinerated. It is virtually harmless.

Over the course of this last half-century, the process was modified by technology so that by 2000 the pump out material was rendered inert and compacted in Old Lyme in a filter press resulting in a dry product that was mostly cellulose. The liquid that was extracted was then treated further in a municipal sewage plant. Outside of Connecticut, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island for instance, this liquid is often used to irrigate forest land, but in Connecticut the DEP insists on still more treatment before they discharge it into streams that flow eventually into Long Island Sound.

One might wonder why the DEP would insist on this wastewater treatment process in a sewage treatment plant and then dump the water in Long Island Sound, instead of injecting it back into upland forest soils or spray on forests to replenish our groundwater. I think it is because they know that their treatment often leaves a product still not clean. Amazing, because my septic tank and leach field are only about 100 feet from my dug well. Generations of people have been drinking this well water for at least 150 years, and all of us have been healthy. The sanitarians, registered and licensed by the Connecticut State Health Department, have never faulted my waste water treatment or my well water.

So one might ask why the DEP (or DEEP) wants studies to justify sewering of Old Lyme Septic Wastewater to New London for treatment, and then why would they dump that treated water into the Thames River and eventually to Long Island Sound?

I think I know. First thing for the reader to know is that in my college years I took courses in sewage and sewerage at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. These are the very same courses taken by Registered Sanitarians here in Connecticut. Here in Connecticut, I served as a Councilor to the Governor for Marine Resources, and in Old Lyme variously as Conservation Commissioner, WPCA Commissioner, Shellfish Commissioner and for ten years as a Selectman. I first moved to Old Lyme in 1960. At that time there was no DEP (now the DEEP). Parks and Forests, Fish and Game, and others were consolidated sometime around 1970 and septic waste management was split up. Discharges of more than 5000 gallons a day were assigned to the DEP and small residential units remained with the State Health Department, where the State Health Code governed.

The Health Code was, and still is, enforced by appointed Health Directors who usually were local medical doctors. Towns hired sanitarians who were formally educated in best practice before they were licensed as Registered Sanitarians (RS). Some of these people were employed by the DEP, with the very same education and the very same license (RS).

Town-employed Registered Sanitarians working through local town medical doctors use the State Health Code as their authority. They inspect restaurants, wells, and small septic systems as they were built and as they are operated. They monitor failures and supervise repairs and modifications. The system works. The Health Code works for small residences and it depends on strict zoning enforcement. The DEP was given statuary control over large discharges. They have another set of rules and these seem to change from time to time. There is, to my knowledge, no DEP equivalent to the State Health Code in print. All I can rely on to evaluate their goals is what filtered down to me in these past thirty or so years. Their primary initial task was with urban and industrial discharges, and sewers and treatment plants.

The first time I ran up against the DEP was when they told Old Saybrook that it was polluting the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound with improperly treated septic wastes. They would build a sewage treatment plant in Old Saybrook and eventually discharge treated wastes into the Connecticut River somewhere near the railroad bridge. This plant would also handle waste from Westbrook and perhaps Clinton. I was at that time the Old Lyme Shellfish Commission Chairman and by State law we had collected revenues from Connecticut River Oyster Harvesting Licenses amounting to several thousand dollars. By law, this money did not go into the General Fund of the Town of Old Lyme, but was to be used by our Commission for the improvement and protection of the resource and for education.

I went to see the point man for the DEP to learn about the planned discharge, since our oysters might be contaminated by their discharge. I learned that the effluent would go into the river “through a diffuser, so it wouldn’t all come up in the same place.” His exact words.

The Old Lyme Shellfish Commission paid the WLIS radio station in Old Saybrook several thousand dollars to broadcast messages urging the voters of Old Saybrook to reject this proposal at their referendum. And they did reject it. Then I heard from the State Election Board that I had violated a law, one that I didn’t know about, by spending municipal money to influence an election. Fortunately, someone else discovered that another law exempted me because that law was only effective after the date of the referendum was published, and someone else had neglected to publish that date.

Later it turned out that they really didn’t need a treatment plant, and now they are doing something else. But I learned how this State plan came into being. Old Saybrook town fathers heard that there was State grant money available for studies of ground-water pollution. Old Saybrook applied for the grant (and bear in mind this was for a study). Old Saybrook got the money and then they were told they were polluting. “But we haven’t even started the study,” they said. Not necessary, you accepted the grant so you have acknowledged you are polluting and we are here from the government to help you.

Here in Old Lyme there are State Chartered Beach Associations and some of the charters clearly state that they may, at their expense, install sewer service. As summer occupancy morphs into year round, and what was ten weeks of summer use becomes fifty two weeks, many of the systems, especially those buried in water and lacking leach fields, were getting help through the agency of “midnight plumbing” into streams like Sheffield Brook. Many of these houses had their property cards marked for “Summer Occupancy Only”, but somehow that provision has been overturned. Old Lyme Sanitarians have found and corrected nearly all these offending systems. As the owners continue to use or rent their summer cottages all year, the small lots on high water tables cannot accommodate these loads.

There are now several ways to correct this problem. They could sewerize their chartered beach associations land at their expense. The law permits this – at their expense. Or individuals could buy up nearby house lots to accommodate adequate septic systems at their expense. Or they might use modern technology at their expense, except that the Connecticut State DEP does not permit modern technology for these residential applications.

On an occasion when the Old Lyme Registered Sanitarian used such modern technology in full accordance with the State Health Department Health Code, “his Bible”, he was threatened by the DEP with revocation of his license to practice – which license was awarded to him by the State Health Department. Perhaps you want to that paragraph again?

Or they could get the Town of Old Lyme to foot the bill for their decision to build small inexpensive summer cottages sixty or seventy years ago on high water table, often on filled tide-marsh land, often on postage stamp sized lots inadequate in area for proper septic systems including adequate leach fields and leach field reserve areas. All at their own expense – unless the Town picks up the tab. Incidentally many of these summer cottages have gotten larger over the decades with porches closed in to form bedrooms and other modifications.

Or they could get the DEP to force the Town to sewerize at Town expense even though ground water tests by recognized engineering firms show that there is no general pollution and that with application of the State Health Code, individual problems can be corrected at the owner’s expense.

It should be noted that the Town of Old Lyme adopted by unanimous vote a policy of sewer avoidance several decades ago. This policy guided the Old Lyme WPCA for many years. It was crafted by the world class engineering firm, Dames and Moore and monitored by Nathan Jacobson Associates of Chester, Connecticut. The framework of this policy was established by none other than engineers and Registered Sanitarians of both the Connecticut DEP and the Connecticut Health Department.

Years later the DEP reversed itself and their representatives told us that what we were doing was all wrong and that we were polluting ourselves and also Long Island Sound.

In one written communication they said human waste was found in Long Island Sound off Point O’Woods about four miles east of the mouth of the Connecticut River. They blamed failing septic systems in Point O’Woods. They neglected to note that our Sanitarian found no such systems or discharges into Long Island Sound waters. Our investigation confirmed the waste and established that it came after heavy rains near Middletown on the Connecticut River caused a combined storm water – sanitary sewer to clog the screens on their treatment plant and that in turn forced the plant operators to open their valves and screens and discharge storm debris and human waste directly into the river. About two days later some of it got to Point O’Woods.

On another occasion, we were told that proof we were polluting was shown by the absence of migrating river herring in the Four Mile River. What they neglected to note, although it is shown on the topographical maps, is that this river has dams on it too high for these fish to jump and there are no fish ladders.

Also, they stated that the coliform counts of Four Mile River water were high and this was proof positive of pollution. Again they neglected to note that just upstream of Point O’Woods there was an active cow farm and wastes from these animals were generated and deposited nearby, constantly. Coliforms are found in the guts of both cows and people.

These lies from our State Government officials are but a small sample; but they were more than I could stomach and I quit my membership in the WPCA.

I conclude after fifty years of closely observing this Town, that consultants can be paid to opine whatever the client pays them to opine.


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