Tisbury has nearly reached capacity at its aging wastewater plant, forcing the town to contend with a cascade of issues past, present and future, including an illegal groundwater hookup from one of its largest users, a long-planned plant expansion, personnel problems inside town hall and a handful of looming, large-scale development projects in some of the town’s most environmentally fragile areas.
An examination of public records provided by the town, including emails and personnel reports, as well as interviews with town officials, both current and former, provides a picture of the pressures posed by plant limitations, particularly as the town embarks on a five-year, comprehensive wastewater management plan and completes an expansion of sewer lines in the State Road business district.
The Tisbury wastewater treatment facility, located off State Road at 115 High Point Lane, was built in 2004 in an effort to help stem the adverse effects of septic runoff into the Lagoon Pond and Vineyard Haven harbor. The facility, which services approximately 130 downtown residences and businesses between Main street and Beach Road, was originally issued a permit by the state for 104,000 gallons of flow per day.
Town officials acknowledged that the plant has exceeded its capacity several times since 2019, but downplayed the seriousness of the issue. Problems with state permitting can occur if all authorized users were to maximize their allowed flow allocation, but that rarely occurs, officials said.
Compounding the issue, however, is that an unknown amount of non-allocated flow in the form of groundwater has entered the wastewater system at various points, raising concerns about how much more the facility can handle.
The town structure for managing its wastewater plant is multi-layered. Wastewater commissioners are also the three elected members of the town select board. The sewer advisory board is a seven-member board appointed by various town committees. The wastewater plant is directly managed by the town Department of Public Works, formerly independent but now under the control of the selectmen.
Since the position of wastewater superintendent was created 10 years ago, four different people have occupied the seat. The current superintendent, Jared Meader, was appointed in October of 2020.
According to Melinda Loberg, a three-term selectman in the town who lost her bid for reelection last June, requests for new wastewater flow allocations by the sewer advisory board and wastewater commissioners during her term on the board were approved with little more than a rubber stamp. And she claimed that rules, including required payment of fees and stated limits on flow allocations, were followed loosely.
“When they developed the plant, there was fear of unfettered development. That’s why they built the thing so small,” Ms. Loberg said. “And now sewer flow has basically been given out.”
And former wastewater superintendent David Thompson said that the town realized in 2019 that the plant was at its limit for wastewater allocations.
“Nobody was keeping score,” Mr. Thompson told the Gazette in an interview. “They were giving away more than they could be giving away.”
In a lengthy email responding to questions from the Gazette, Kirk Metell, who was named director of the Tisbury DPW in 2019, confirmed that the plant had exceeded its daily flow limit three times in 2019, but that any over-allocation has not affected the functioning of the facility.
“We find that most of our users only use a fraction of what was originally assigned,” he said in part.
Moreover, he said, the town has never violated its DEP permit.
But Ms. Loberg and sewer advisory board member John Best, said over the years records on allocation, wastewater billing and betterment payments were not well kept, leaving wastewater officials in the dark about available allotments and other information.
And if the functioning of the plant wasn’t affected, the over-allocation still ran the risk of violating state DEP rules, which can jeopardize the license for wastewater plants, they said.
Mr. Thompson, a longtime Edgartown wastewater superintendent who was hired to run the Tisbury plant in December of 2019 and was terminated last summer, said when he attempted to bring up the over-allocation issue with town officials, including Mr. Metell, the problems were downplayed. He also said when he raised other issues, including the town’s use of estimated wastewater bills that he felt wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny under audit, he was told to direct all his communication through Mr. Metell and not to speak with other town officials, including members of the select board.
“I was muzzled,” Mr. Thompson said. “I was told that all of my emails and communications had to go through Kirk Metell at DPW before I could talk to anybody.”
Mr. Metell said in his email to the Gazette that the wastewater superintendent reports directly to the DPW director. He said estimated bills are not the town’s preferred billing method, but have withstood audits. He shared a flow chart showing the chain of command, as well as emails he sent to Mr. Thompson requesting bi-weekly meetings and better communication.
“We need to be unified and bring out a single message to Jay [town administrator Jay Grande] & the Selectmen, this starts with communication,” Mr. Metell wrote Mr. Thompson on July 7, 2020, in one email he provided to the Gazette.
Public records provided by the town show that last May, Mr. Thompson also noticed that the Mansion House, which has one of the largest sewer allocations in town at 11,000 gallons per day, had suspiciously high pump run hours at the town sewer plant despite being nearly vacant since the start of the pandemic.
After investigating the issue, Mr. Thompson said it became clear to him that about 12,000 to 15,000 gallons of unbillable clean groundwater, not wastewater, were being pumped into the town’s sewer system through a sump pump hookup near the hotel’s commercial washing machines.
“When we opened up the chamber, the flow was flowing in there like Poland Spring,” Mr. Thompson told the Gazette. “But the building had been winterized. The water had been turned off.”
For the next couple of days, after the valve was closed, a geothermal heat exchanger began to overflow and groundwater rushed down State Road, puddling at Five Corners.
Mr. Thompson explained the issue in an expanded report to town officials on May 29, saying that the previously hidden flow would likely not have been noticed without the pandemic because the Mansion House is such a large user. He said it posed broader issues for the capacity-crunched town wastewater plant. In his report, Mr. Thompson wrote that operators told him the Mansion House connection “has always been like this.” “We have been getting this inflow . . . probably for years,” Mr. Thompson wrote. “I believe this partially addresses a looming plant capacity issue for the immediate future.”
It is illegal to discharge groundwater into town sewer systems.
Development projects, including one planned at former lumber yard on Beach Road, are expected to need sewer hookups.
— Mark Alan Lovewell
Mr. Thompson’s report also stated that rainstorms and flooding were causing substantial unbilled groundwater inflow from submerged pump stations at the Beach Road Citgo. He suspected similar inflow issues at other places in town, taxing the plant. “This has also been happening for years,” Mr. Thompson wrote.
In an email to the Gazette, Mansion House owner Josh Goldstein said the sewer connection was part of the hotel’s original plumbing from 2001 when the building was reconstructed after a fire. He said the hotel uses a gravity pit to drain its washing machines, and that gray water is pumped out of the pit into the sewer.
“At some point, the liner apparently cracked and groundwater started coming in. We have no idea when this happened,” Mr. Goldstein wrote. “As soon as we were made aware of the problem, we started to take steps to fix it.”
Records show that town officials, including Mr. Metell and members of the select board, as well as Mr. Goldstein, were proactive initially in trying to identify and remediate the problem. But communication stalled in late May, and the Mansion House was allowed to reconnect the groundwater pump to the town sewer for Memorial Day weekend, records show.
A letter drafted by Mr. Thompson in late May that was supposed to be sent to Mr. Goldstein about remediating the illegal hookup was ultimately never sent. Although Mr. Grande provided feedback to Mr. Thompson on the letter, Mr. Metell stepped in and told the town to disregard it.
“Disregard . . . I am informing David now that your direction was for all of us (David, Myself and Environmental Partners Group) to formulate a letter for the Selectmen . . . He ran rogue and I’m reeling him in,” Mr. Metell wrote to Mr. Grande on June 2.
The Mansion House continued to pump groundwater into the town wastewater system through the summer.
Meanwhile, Mr. Thompson’s probation period with the town, set to expire on May 1, had been extended until August. In a lengthy note to Mr. Thompson on April 21, Mr. Metell explained the reasoning, saying that the pandemic had limited his hours and that he wanted Mr. Thompson to be more involved in billing, testing, payroll, and to better familiarize himself with the wastewater plant.
“You really haven’t had time to settle down and get your feet firmly settled,” the DPW director wrote.
But Mr. Thompson disputed the reasons for his extended probation period.
“They wanted somebody who would keep their head down and do what they were told,” he said.
Town process for managing its wastewater plant is multi-layered, with selectmen also acting as sewer commissioners.
— Mark Alan Lovewell
In June, Ms. Loberg lost her reelection bid to Larry Gomez. A month later, Mr. Thompson was terminated.
“Your performance has been assessed against the town of Tisbury’s standards of conduct, attendance and job performance and I regret to inform you that you did not pass your probationary period,” Mr. Metell wrote to Mr. Thompson on July 8.
Wastewater advisory board member John Best said Mr. Thompson’s firing caught his board by surprise.
“[David] really got a handle on stuff. He gave us figures on the flow and everything, and for the first time was figuring out what was going on with the system, which was in chaos,” Mr. Best said. “He was really addressing a lot of those problems, and we knew of no difficulties whatsoever.”
Emails provided by the town show that the Mansion House issue was not mentioned again until Sept. 25, when Mr. Metell sent an email to Mr. Goldstein asking for an update on the hotel’s leaching field.
“This unnecessary uncountable flow is taxing our current undersized plant,” the DPW director wrote.
In an email to the Gazette, Mr. Grande said Covid-19 shutdowns, delayed meetings and turnover on the select board, and by extension the wastewater board, were among the reasons the issue lingered for nearly six months.
“I believe wastewater staff responded appropriately throughout,” Mr. Grande wrote in part.
Mr. Metell said in his email that Mansion House owners complied with all deadlines.
Jared Meader, a former facilities manager in Oak Bluffs, was hired as wastewater superintendent in October. The Mansion House issue was finally resolved by mid-December, after the hotel installed a new leaching field. The hotel has not been assessed any fines or back fees, according to Mr. Grande and Mr. Metell, who said the town was still reviewing the matter.
Reflecting on his tenure, Mr. Thompson expressed deep frustration that his performance review never took place in front of the wastewater commissioners or select board, but was handled solely by Mr. Metell. He used the word “reticence” to describe the town’s attitude toward addressing its wastewater problems.
“I wasn’t there very long, but I had uncovered a fair number of [problems],” Mr. Thompson said. “And they decided that I was more trouble than I was worth.”
In June, Tisbury voters approved $6 million to incrementally expand the town wastewater facility. Capacity is expected to increase to approximately 135,000 to 140,000 gallons per day, officials said, with a direct focus on connecting about 50 parcels in the B2 State Road business district.
The expansion aligns with the town’s long-term planning goals, which focus on future town development in the State Road district. A key goal is to decrease nitrogen impairment from septic runoff in Lake Tashmoo — similar to the 2004 sewer facility’s goal of improvement in the Lagoon and harbor.
Towns are required by state law to begin expansion planning if their facility is at 80 per cent of capacity; Tisbury has earmarked funding and begun discussions for its comprehensive wastewater management plan. Mr. Grande and Mr. Metell both said the town is excited about the project.
Two weeks ago, Tisbury received a memo from its consultant Environmental Partners Group regarding current capacity at the wastewater facility. Even with the proposed expansion, available capacity, excluding committed hookups, is approximately 3,500 gallons per day, consultants said.
That leaves little room for future development.
“What we’re confronting in Tisbury right now is a system that is basically close to maxed out in the downtown area. I don’t think there’s any surplus,” Mr. Best said. “And my feeling is that there has never, never been prioritization of where that flow goes.”
But added flow from downtown is still getting approved. This past winter, a proposed 11-unit condominium development at the old Santander Bank was granted more than 1,000 gallons per day in additional flow. Another project, the 50-unit Hinckley’s development on Beach Road, would need approximately 7,000 gallons of flow per day.
“As we all know we need a larger plant,” Mr. Metell wrote in his email to the Gazette, using all capital letters.
Ms. Loberg framed the challenge in blunt terms.
“The biggest issue is we don’t have enough sewer flow for the demands. So when you get down to the bottom of it, there are combative tugs of war about who gets what,” she said. “It’s like a bunch of hyenas in a field tearing over the carcass of this poor, dead animal.”