Seacoast riled up over wastewater pipeline planning

One of four options involves coastal treatment and discharge 4.3 miles out to sea

Jim Cerny

Many in the Seacoast are just becoming fully aware of the New Hampshire Seacoast Region Wastewater Management Feasibility Study. And some officials along the ocean-front Seacoast have expressed alarm. The overall goal is to protect the Great Bay Estuary in terms of sewage treatment and disposal in the region. First steps go back at least to 2003 when Senate Bill 70 was passed, and to 2004 when Senate Bill 481 was passed to form EAST, the Estuary Alliance for Sewage Treatment. For shorthand here we will refer to the overall project as the WWTF (Wastewater Treatment Facilities) planning.

Much has happened since the subject was last mentioned in Rye Reflections nearly two years ago. As of November, 2007, planning is narrowed to four alternatives. This review briefly describes these alternatives and then focuses on Alternative 2, which is of special concern to the towns with direct ocean frontage.

The existing WWTF on Peirce Island in Portsmouth, which discharges 4.5 million gallons/day without secondary treatment. (Jim Cerny photo)

The main collection point for information is the CoastalClear Web site. Here's a recommend quick start, to get you up to speed without your eyes glazing over.

Brief summary of the four alternatives

  1. No action. Treatment would continue at each of the exiting 17 WWTFs with discharge at existing locations.
  2. Treatment at existing WWTFs with collection and discharge to an ocean pipeline.
  3. Decentralized treatment at existing WWTFs, with upgrades.
  4. Treatment at existing WWTFs with discharge at land application sites.

Getting up to speed on Alternative 2

The legislature mandated inclusion of ocean pipeline disposal as part of the study, what is now Alternative 2. And that alternative can't be implemented by EAST without further legislative approval.  

  1. Click on "About the Project" in the left navigation bar and read the project overview.
  2. Then click on "Documents" and read the "Executive Summary," noting that there are four alternative plans under consideration. Alternative 2, that calls for a ocean sewage pipeline off the Rye seacoast, is the one of most immediate concern to local governments.
  3. Select "Section 6" which discusses Alternative 2 in detail this is 17 pages, so skim first to understand the scope and then read in detail.
  4. Beyond this, browse the site to familiarize yourself with the other documents that are available.

There are a number of stakeholders and players in all this: the Legislature which initiated the study; the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services; Metcalf & Eddy which was selected to conduct the study; the Great Bay Estuary Commission which provides community representation during the study; the Estuary Alliance for Sewage Treatment (EAST) which is a public body separate from the State, that would have the power to build and operate facilities; and, of course, the individual communities that would participate.

The 44 communities covered by EAST make a much more expanded "Seacoast" than is normally thought of, ranging as far north as New Durham and Brookfield (which are actually in the Lake Winnipesaukee watershed) and as far west as Candia and Deerfield, and as far southwest as Kingston and Danville (which are in the Merrimack River watershed)!

Alternative 2

It is Alternative 2 that is raising the most concern at present among ocean-front towns. Alternative 2 calls for an enormous infrastructure to bring wastewater from seventeen area WWTFs to a single treatment point on the Rye coastline, then to discharge via a pipeline into the ocean. This would involve 91 miles of pipeline and 30 pumping stations on land, siting of a Regional Post-Treatment Facility (RPTF) at the shore, and at least 4.3 miles of ocean pipeline six feet in diameter, partly trenched.

Schematic map showing linkage of 17 existing wastewater treatment facilties to discharge in an ocean pipeline. (figure 3-2 from

Issues and criticisms

Representative David Borden (New Castle and Rye) is quoted in the Union Leader as saying the ocean pipeline idea is "not solving a pollution problem, it's moving a pollution problem and dewatering a whole area." The Town of Rye "strongly objects" to Alternative 2 in an official response letter in mid-February. In that letter Town Administrator Alan Gould notes, "This outfall pipe would certainly have an impact on tourism, the local economy, aquaculture and property values."

Expanding on issues:

Possible routes for a pipeline under Alternative 2 of the WWTF. (figure 3-4 from

Remembering the Onassis refinery and Big Dig

It is not unreasonable to compare the threat posed to the ocean-front Seacoast by Alternative 2 as similar in magnitude to the infamous attempt by Aristotle Onassis to build an oil refinery in Durham in the 1970s. More recently there is the Big Dig in Boston as an example of a complex construction project out of control in cost and with many construction defects. In fact the Rye representative to EAST, James Raynes, called this WWTF plan the "Big Dig of New Hampshire" at a Rye Selectmen's Meeting in October 2007.

Input to the process

You can join a mailing list for news and announcements about the study. In March, 2006, a charrette workshop was held to gather public input and the questions were recorded, but generally without accompanying answers.

It is not clear what happens next, with the November, 2007 report complete. If you have questions and concerns you should work through your various representatives. For your members of the New Hampshire House and Senate, use this search facility. For your representative to the Great Bay Estuary Commission, see this list.

Appendix: Report highlights

These are some salient highlights from the November, 2007, Draft Alternatives Report, on that relate to Alternative 2, notable for their understatement. Some of these are also in the excerpts accompanying the Town of Rye response letter.

Section 6.1.1 on impacts: Depending on the final siting location of the RPTF [Regional Post-Treatment Facility], the facility could result in an aesthetic impact to adjacent land uses.

Section 6.1.6 on reduced flow: To the extent that surface water flow and groundwater levels are reduced due to transfer of WWTF effluent out of the basins to a Gulf of Maine discharge, the habitat of local rare or endangered species may be altered.

Section 6.2.1 on maintenance: These force mains and pump stations would require routine operational attention and regular maintenance.

Section 6.2.2 on implementation: Siting of the components is anticipated to be difficult from environmental and public acceptance points of view.

Appendix D on the Rye coastline: Sites 2 and 3 [for the ocean outfall] would require a leg along the shore to avoid crossing the cable areas.

March, 2008