Sewer Lines on the Seashore
By the early 2000’s almost everyone on Plum Island was suffering from bouts of diarrhea and the smell of sewage hung heavily in the air when the wind didn’t blow. House lots had become so small due to overbuilding and moving houses back from the shore, that septic tanks were leaching into water wells. Essentially, people were drinking their neighbors’ sewage.
This would probably have been a good time to let the real estate market gradually reduce the population of the island, or for communities to have used zoning ordinances to increase the size of house lots. In the short term such measures would have reduced tax revenues and real estate profits, but in the long term it would have increased town income and land values. But bigger forces were also in play.
The EPA had passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, followed in 2002, by the Beach Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, or BEACH. The acts required that Massachusetts force Newbury and Newburyport to enter into consent decrees with the new regulations.
Of course the island communities couldn’t comply because their lots were too small, so town, state and federal officials met behind closed doors to come up with a plan. It was another doozy. Bury water and sewer lines beneath the barrier beach.
The reason you don’t want to bury water and sewer lines under a barrier beach is that storms tend to break them in two. Plus, barrier beaches are underlain with salt water that rises and falls with the tides. This pushes a shallow lens of fresh water to the surface where it often floods roads, streets and low-lying areas. It can also contaminate people’s wells because they get their drinking water from that same shallow aquifer.
The same sort of thing could happen with the water and sewer lines. Corrosive salt water would surround them at least every month. This was the reason that the only real barrier beaches that have water and sewer lines in Massachusetts were Plum Island and Salisbury Beach.
Almost every town, state and federal environmental regulation had to be bent, broken, and folded to allow the pipes to be buried but they were, and the $30 Million dollar project went forward. Newburyport had compounded the problem by deciding to install a finicky new system that used air vents and valves to create an underground vacuum so the sewerage could be sucked from houses on Plum Island to the waste treatment plant in downtown Newburyport, almost 6 miles away. Plus, the waste treatment plant itself was built on the banks of the flood prone Merrimack River.
Sewer systems normally use gravity, assisted by pumps, to push water and sewerage through its pipes. But apparently a sharp salesman had convinced Newburyport’s mayor that Plum Island would be better served by installing his company’s new Air-Vac system. He argued that with the new system you wouldn’t have a massive spill of sewerage spill if a storm broke through one of the pipes.
It didn’t really matter that Air-Vac was a complicated system that had never been tried in the North. But the salesman was persuasive; he convinced both Newburyport and Provincetown to buy the system. Of course, P’town will try almost anything.
Problems started cropping up in 2009 then peaked in 2015 when an unlucky city employee forgot to reopen a valve after completing a 2 am routine maintenance drill. But Plum Island was still reeling from 10 feet of snow that had fallen in 30 days. This made it impossible to relocate the valve before the problems started to cascade through the system. It also didn’t help that the employee couldn’t remember which valve he had left closed.
The candy cane shaped vents that jutted out of the ground beside everyone’s homes were clogged with snow. They were supposed to let air into people’s pipes so the sewage could flow out smoothly. It was like holding a can of soda upside down. The water would only gurgle out slowly but if you pierced the bottom of the can the water would gush out with abandon.
But the vents couldn’t work buried under snow. Plus many of the wells that housed the delicate valves were covered in solid ice because they had been built in low-lying areas of the island.
But the biggest problem was the environment itself. The pipes were not fastened together to guarantee a watertight seal. Instead they had been simply lain down in a shallow trough so that the end of one pipe would rest against the gasket of the next pipe. If storms or high tides caused the sand to settle, sand salt water and grit could all infiltrate the slumped pipes and break the vacuum.
All these problems cascaded down on top of each other until over 600 basements had filled with raw sewerage and islanders couldn’t use their own toilets, for fear of backing up sewerage in their neighbor’s homes. Police details finally had to assemble hundreds of people in convoys of 20 cars each and slowly evacuate them off the island in blizzard conditions. Many of them opted to stay in hotels where Newburyport taxpayers picked up the tab to the tune of $70,000. Had burying the water and sewer lines been Plum Island’s third big mistake?