A Weapon to Defend Island Waters

The days slip by, one after another. First a hundred, then a thousand, then thousands more. The cesspool keeps leaking. The septic system isn’t repaired. The one-bedroom, one-toilet cottage is transformed into a three-bedroom, two-toilet home. And the quality of the water in Sengekontacket Pond continues to decline.

This case study of a home on the Sengekontacket shore is a disturbing tale of how pollution from just one house can continue to filter into the pond’s water for years after town officials first become aware of a problem.

By the estimate of Edgartown health agent Matt Poole, the situation at this single property on the Boulevard has been going on for twelve years, or more than four thousand days.

That’s bad enough. But what’s worse is that the Boulevard house is anything but unique. And therein lies the tale of why water quality in the Vineyard’s precious ponds has been declining sharply.

The standard story marries the proverbial camel tucking his nose under the tent with the robust financial wherewithal available to some Vineyard property owners.

Twelve years ago, the owners of the Boulevard property got a permit to do some work on the cottage then there. The next thing the town knew, the cottage was gone and the owners were preparing to build a much larger house.

The town issued a cease-and-desist order. And there things stood for a decade, until the owners agreed to board of health stipulations that the house would have only one bedroom; that the failed septic system would be regularly maintained; and that the house would tie into a shared wastewater disposal system.

A reasonable solution. But a subsequent town investigation revealed the house as built included three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and that the owners hadn’t taken steps to ensure that the cesspool wasn’t overflowing.

Edgartown health officials say the owners have failed to respond. So the board is considering levying a fine of between four thousand and six thousand dollars. The board is scheduled to consider its next move at its September twenty-seventh meeting.

Mr. Poole acknowledges that the town could have moved more rapidly. And the Friends of Sengekontacket, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting the pond, already is angry about the property’s failure to come into compliance.

But this is more than an isolated case. In light of the pond’s first permanent closure to shellfishing earlier this summer — not to mention growing concern about deterioration of water quality throughout Island ponds — the health agent notes “the whole regulatory scene has changed. The whole tone of the conversation in Sengekontacket on the shoreline has changed.”

In truth, Sengekontacket and other Island ponds already are under stress from the sheer mass of properly functioning septic systems, let alone all the substandard disposal systems that quietly continue their existence.

Boards of health and health agents alone cannot stem the tide of illegal or noncompliant systems. Still, they potentially represent a far more powerful weapon in the battle against pond pollution than has been realized. As towns consider funding priorities for the coming fiscal years, they would be wise to allocate whatever additional resources these officials need to better protect Island waters.