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The Mashpee Enterprise: Septic System Test Center Makes Strides Toward Better Safeguarding Cape’s Water

Brian Baumgaertel, the director of Barnstable County’s Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center, on the center’s 2-acre property on Joint Base Cape Cod. Photo Credit: Sam Drysdale/Enterprise.

Outdated and environmentally unfriendly septic systems and cesspools are the norm on Cape Cod. Although most people would rather avoid the topic of where their waste goes after it has been flushed, the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center is not afraid to take on the issue directly.

Located on Joint Base Cape Cod, the center was founded in 1999 to test and research innovative/alternative, or I/A, septic systems.

Traditional septic systems, which represent most of the wastewater infrastructure on Cape Cod, have contributed to the contamination of both fresh and saltwater systems through poor nutrient regulation.

Nitrogen and phosphorus in human waste leak from septic tanks into the groundwater, which then flows into the Cape’s bays, estuaries, rivers and ponds.

Saltwater generally lacks significant amounts of nitrogen, so when the nutrient is introduced to the system, it encourages the growth of algae and bacteria that thrive off the new nutrients. Algae blooms cause oxygen depletion, which kills fish, shellfish, eelgrass beds and other important life forms. In freshwater systems, phosphorus flows have the same effect.

All four Upper Cape towns saw significant cyanobacteria blooms in their lakes and ponds during the summer of 2021. The blooms can produce toxins that are harmful to people and animals.

As water quality worsens on the Cape—and for many other places throughout the country—MASSTC has been researching, testing and inventing new I/A septic systems that are designed to treat wastewater to prevent excess nutrients from entering the groundwater.

“What we try to do here at the test center is vet the technology and identify the best ones,” said MASSTC director Brian Baumgaertel, a Mashpee resident who is also the chairman of the Mashpee Board of Health. “We may do the testing here or we may look at testing done in other areas of the country, but we’re trying to figure out how to broaden the toolbox for Cape Cod.”

Read the article in its entirety at Septic System Test Center Makes Strides Toward Better Safeguarding Cape’s Water | Mashpee News |