At a recent meet-the-candidates event ahead of a special election for the Cambridge Selectboard, retired police officer Doug Masson asked the hopefuls to comment on one of the biggest controversies in town: Should Working Dog Septic be allowed to spread septic waste in a field near the Lamoille River?
Candidates Jeff Coslett and Teelah Hall both condemned the idea unequivocally, and Masson said he was against it as well.
In fact, it’s difficult to find anyone in Cambridge publicly excited about the idea of spreading human waste across this particular field near River Road off Route 104.
Lawrence Young — the owner of Working Dog Septic, a Cambridge-based waste management company that handles septic needs across the county — originally submitted an application to the Agency of Natural Resources for approval to dispose of septic waste across the field owned by Mark and Lauri Boyden in 2020.
The application was suspended while the rules around solid waste management were updated. It returned for further consideration in 2021 to greater public scrutiny.
According to agency documents, concerns around the application last year were focused on its existence in a 100-year floodplain, the frequency with which the area floods and its potential impact on water quality. Questions and issues raised during the most recent public comment period on the issue, which ended May 3, are still being compiled.
According to state regulators, using the Boyden farmland for septic spreading conforms to Vermont environmental regulations because it’s not located in a flood hazard area or any other protected water area, making the land exempt from a rule prohibiting waste disposal in a river corridor. Officials also said the area where waste would be spread was far enough away from water sources.
Cambridge government officials and the selectboard appear united in opposition to the project. Working Dog Septic did not return multiple requests for comment.
According to Joshua Burns at the Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Conservation, with which the decision to approve or deny the application lies, there’s currently no timeline for making a final decision on the matter.
Location, location, location
In an April 10 letter addressed to Burns, Cambridge conservation commission chair Justin Marsh opposed the septic company’s application “on the grounds of environmental conservation and compliance with the Cambridge town plan.”
Specifically, the letter claimed the proposed plan for waste disposal would threaten the town’s rivers and water supply in direct violation of the town plan. The letter noted that human waste, unlike animal waste, has the potential to dump pharmaceutical chemicals into the water that can be “toxic to wildlife, cause reproductive defects and even sex-changes in fish and amphibians and have been linked to cancers and other problems in humans.
“We ask that these concerns are taken into account during the review of the application, and suggest that alternative locations for this activity would be more appropriate,” the letter said.
Though the spreading of human waste makes some queasy, it’s the location that has drawn the most ire.
“We understand that this sort of use of human septage is something that is done and it’s regulated and followed, but the question is the location because this is an area within the floodplain and it’s an area that is known to flood regularly,” said Cambridge selectboard chair Courtney Leitz. “The Agency of Natural Resources pays attention to all of this, the timing of when you spread, but the feelings of people in that area were ‘yes, we live here, we know that this field floods regularly, it doesn’t necessarily flood at any sort of agreed upon time, the river doesn’t check first before it goes over the bank.’ ”
Leitz and the board felt strongly enough about the issue to send a second letter in support of Marsh’s letter asking the department of environmental conservation to halt the project and move the proposed location for septic spreading to different site further from the Lamoille River.