Plum Island project: Past, present and ...

By State Rep. Harriett Stanley / Sitting In
Friday, October 17, 2003

When the Local Affairs Committee unanimously recommended passage of the Plum Island legislation earlier this week, the proposed Plum Island water and sewer project moved closer to reality. It's taken a long, long to time to get to this point.

For public health reasons, the goal of providing clean water to Plum Island has been a topic of debate in local parts for at least 30 years ... and some Plum Island natives would say 50 years. For those who think the Plum Island project is more about power and politics than it is public health, the hearing was a real wake-up call.

To this day, there are homes on the island where residents cannot turn on the tap for a glass of water to drink.

There are families who will not bathe their children at home because of concerns the water may be contaminated by a septic tank - or is too salty or unpleasant for personal hygiene.

This is not 1903, it's 2003 - the 21st century. Clean water should be available to every home without contracting with Poland Springs.

I've been involved in the effort to extend utility service to the island since 1995. As a freshman legislator, I imagined that children born that year would be able to have clean, fresh water in the house by the time they were in kindergarten. That child is in now in the third grade, and clean water is still a few years away for Plum Islanders.

The current project is a response to a public health issue on the island and the environmental regulations known as Title V, which govern septic tank disposal systems. A revised set of regulations was issued in 1995. Because of the high water table and small house lots on Plum Island, most properties simply didn't have enough room to meet the strict setback requirements.

As a result, DEP worked out a five-year plan, whereby the two communities would have five years to work together on a permanent solution to the problem.

This legislation establishes how the two communities involved - Newbury (which Sen. Bruce Tarr and I represent) and Newburyport (which Sen. Steve Baddour and Rep. Mike Costello represent) - will proceed.

Part of the need for the project, and this legislation, is law enforcement. Both communities are under the directive of an Administrative Consent Order (ACO) with DEP to bring the homes on the island into compliance with Title V.

There has been a series of formal engineering and environmental studies conducted on this project, culminating in the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) review.

Two years ago, in November of 2001, Executive Office of Environmental Affairs Secretary Robert Durand certified that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) examining the project complied with the MEPA review requirements.

Despite all that study, the project has been - and remains - controversial.

In terms of the need for water and sewer services, there are two circumstances for people on Plum Island: some people have safe water, others do not.

At the beginning of the Plum Island Turnpike, there is a fire-hydrant with a specially-adapted spigot attached to it. Many Islanders who do not have clean, safe water stop off and fill up water jugs for their homes. Others go to friends' houses on the mainland for their weekly water supply.

To be fair, there are properties on the island that comply with Title V. Property owners have invested substantial amounts to comply with Title V. But not all residents have financial resources or the technical capabilities to manage what amounts to very expensive, customized septic systems. And, no matter how well those customized systems work, they do not solve the need for everyone on the Island to have clean water.

What Newbury and Newburyport have done together is design a utility project that treats all island residents equally and that provides an environmentally-sound means to remove household waste. The residents of beachfront on Plum Island deserve no less.

Currently, the costs of the Plum Island project can be subsidized by the state's revolving funds for water and sewer projects which offset interest costs associated with borrowing. If the project doesn't happen, Islanders may lose that subsidy and have to bear the full cost of compliance themselves. The current proposal provides a way for residents to comply with the law as a community.

Newbury and Newburyport have adopted a means for residents on fixed incomes to be able to defer some or all of the betterments costs, making this a solution that's available to everyone.

Finally, a word about timing.

For the first time in years, this project is ready to go, and for the first time in years, the major stakeholders agree: elected and appointed officials in both communities, the water commissions in both communities and 64 percent of the residents on Plum Island agree.

It's time to get it done.

Harriett Stanley is the 2nd Essex District state representative, serving Groveland, Merrimack Newbury, West Newbury and Rowley.


(This article replicated online with permission of the Merrimack River Current.)
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