Cape Cod Town Fails to Address Toxic Wastewater Pollution

CLF urges Massachusetts to deny Barnstable’s inadequate application to clean up pollution in waters

Aerial view of algae mats in Prince Cove (north of North Bay) in Marston Mills, Massachusetts.

Aerial view of algae mats in Warren's Cove in Marston Mills, Massachusetts. Cape Cod.

June 4, 2024 (BOSTON, MA) – Years of nitrogen pollution continues to go largely unaddressed on Cape Cod, as towns like Barnstable drag their feet upgrading infrastructure critical to combatting the problem. Outdated nitrogen-removal at wastewater treatment plants and ineffective septic systems leak wastewater with high levels of the element into the Cape’s waters, causing toxic algae outbreaks and placing people, fish and wildlife, and tourism at risk. Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) sent a letter today to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) urging the Department to deny Barnstable’s inadequate Watershed Permit application submitted in response to new rules designed to clean up wastewater pollution on Cape Cod.

“Cape Cod’s storied waters are increasingly becoming murky and lifeless. If Barnstable doesn’t take this issue seriously, the future of the town’s wildlife and tourism will also become murky and lifeless,” said Christopher Kilian, Vice President of Strategic Litigation at CLF. “For decades, Barnstable has known that its waters are polluted, yet has been slow to take mitigation steps. Submitting a Watershed Permit application that does not adequately address the wastewater pollution reeks at best of laziness and at worst of indifference.”

The letter outlines that CLF reviewed Barnstable’s application and found significant deficiencies. The town submitted its existing watershed management plan unaltered and with no additional information. While the new rules allow towns to submit existing watershed management plans as part of the application, they specify that additional information must also be included. CLF found the town failed to complete most of the requirements set out in the new rules.

CLF filed a lawsuit against Mass DEP in 2021 to impose a schedule of enforceable steps to clean up the primary source of nitrogen – ineffective septic systems. CLF dismissed its lawsuit when the new rules went into effect.

The new rules went into effect in July 2023 and Barnstable submitted its application in September 2023. The rules require homeowners on the Cape to upgrade their septic systems within seven years unless the towns they live in apply for a watershed permit to manage the nitrogen pollution. If a town applies for a watershed permit within two years, that pauses the upgrade requirement for individuals in that town.

A copy of the letter can be found here.

CLF experts are available for further comment.