Worcester DPW + Chamber Accused of Stalling Sewage Upgrades
Friday, August 30, 2013
Greater Worcester’s 30-year-old regional sewage-treatment plant in Millbury continues to dump excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous into the Blackstone River. Yet the facility’s governing body continues to balk at making another $250 million worth of federally required upgrades because the costly mandate is - unlike three decades ago - unfunded by the federal government. That’s still no excuse, according to a longtime Blackstone Valley environmental leader.
Donna Williams, chair of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission, has been haranguing Worcester officials for many years to cut the plant’s excess emissions of nitrogen, which produces excessive vegetation and algae growth in salt water, and phosphorous, which results in excessive weed growth in fresh water. She and her fellow environmental leaders are concerned about both the fresh-water Blackstone River and the salt-water Narragansett Bay – with the 50-mile-long Blackstone emptying into the 147-square-mile bay.
Where one stands on the matter of the fairness of unfunded mandates is “a question of perspective,” Williams observes. “I think it is essential that we improve water quality in all of our waterways. The fact that there is no federal money to do that, is remarkably unfortunate. However, this isn’t just [Greater] Worcester that has to meet these new standards - this is across the country. Sometimes, I get the feeling that [Greater Worcester] thinks that [the federal Environmental Protection Agency] is picking [only] on them.”
EPA is prohibited under the federal Clean Water Act from considering the cost of mandated discharge limits when enforcing those limits. However, once the project permit is finalized and while the construction timeline is being developed, the EPA can – and does - consider the costs required to meet the conditions of the permit. “That piece gets overlooked a lot,” Williams says.
EPA’s ‘voracious appetite’
The Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District plant was built in 1973 at a cost of $27 million. That’s a small portion of the price tag to make the latest set improvements mandated by the EPA.
In 2009, UBWPAD completed a $200-million upgrade of its treatment facilities based on an EPA permit issued in 2001. The permit did not have nitrogen limits, but the plant recognized that it would likely face these limits in the future, so it planned to have a removal goal of 8 to 10 milligrams per liter of treated wastewater. In the meantime, EPA issued a permit in 2008 that set nitrogen limits at 5 milligrams per liter - similar to the two largest plants in Rhode Island. EPA also limited phosphorus discharges during warm-weather months to 0.1 milligrams per liter of treated wastewater. UBWPAD appealed the new phosphorous-discharge limits.
As GoLocalWorcester reported last January in DPW Commissioner Blasts ‘Voracious Appetite’ of EPA ‘Beast’, Robert Moylan, who both chairs the UBWPAD Commission and leads Worcester’s Department of Public Works, is not in favor of polluting either the Blackstone River or Narragansett. But when it comes to unfunded EPA mandates, he thinks enough is enough.
"These questions need to be thoughtfully considered and seriously debated,” Moylan said at the time, “because the course that we are on now, trying to satisfy the voracious appetite of the federal beast called EPA, will not leave any funding to allow the city to make its own self-directed improvements that the community desires.”
Moylan outlined 18 water and sewer projects for the next five years, some of which fall under EPA mandates, and others that are discretionary. At that time, the mandated projects would cost Worcester alone an estimated $1.2 billion, while discretionary projects would total $79 million, a small fraction of the mandate amount.
SCOTUS refuses to hear UBWPAD
Donna Williams and her Blackstone River allies are not alone in expressing frustration with the continued lack of action to upgrade the plant. In 2011, the Conservation Law Foundation, on behalf of nearly two dozen environmental groups and individuals, minced no words in a letter to the EPA.
“Together, we are dedicated to protecting and restoring the health of our waterways and estuaries, and to the implementation and enforcement of local, state, and federal clean water laws,” the CLF stated at the time. “Commitment to this work is essential for the Blackstone River and Narragansett Bay to attain water-quality standards, and if we are to save an ecosystem on the brink of collapse.” The 147-square-mile Narragansett Bay is an estuary of national significance that has more than 400 miles of shoreline in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
At the time, the state Department of Environmental Protection was seeking a permit modification for the UBWPAD plant. DEP wanted additional time, established through a compliance schedule, to use what the agency termed “new scientific tools” to evaluate and adjust the established permit limits, where appropriate. CLF argued that the permit modification would unnecessarily delay implementation of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit limits for the treatment facility until multiple agencies could reach common ground on appropriate science-based limits.
“The approach supported by UBWPAD, and now [Mass.] DEP, is contrary to the clear standards established by the [federal] Clean Water Act, which require that EPA sets limitations on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution stringent enough to assure compliance with the water-quality standards for Narragansett Bay and the tributaries into which the UBWPAD’s pollution-discharge flows,” CLF stated.
“More importantly,” CLF continued, “the approach advocated by [Mass.] DEP will not result in the changes needed to achieve and maintain clean and usable water. Time is of the essence, and the UBWPAD proposal would unnecessarily delay both the implementation of statutorily mandated pollution controls and the already long overdue recovery of Narragansett Bay.”
This May, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with CLF and its allies. The High Court declined to hear the UBWPAD’s challenge to federal phosphorous-discharge limits. That left standing a federal Court of Appeals decision in favor of the EPA and its unfunded mandates as well as the scientific process the EPA used to set those standards. UBWPAD and EPA are now working out the details of a consent agreement.
For this article, Moylan was on vacation and unavailable for comment. Matt Labovites, who is filling in for Moylan at Worcester DPW, has yet to respond to GoLocalWorcester’s calls. And Karla Sangrey, engineer and director of UPWPAD, declines to comment because her organization and the EPA are “in closed-door negotiations” regarding the consent agreement.
Sometimes, science gets it wrong
Don’t expect Greater Worcester’s business and political leaders to quit this fight anytime soon. If anything, they may be just rolling up their sleeves for a lengthy battle.
Timothy Murray, the new president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, didn’t waste much time in addressing this long-simmering issue.
On June 20, less than one month after Tim Murray prematurely exited the elected post of lieutenant governor to start a new private-sector gig as president and CEO of the Chamber, he called on the EPA “to take a more flexible and reasoned approach to this issue. We will work with our federal elected and appointed officials to achieve this goal, and direct more federal funding to help pay for needed projects. Only by working together can we continue to improve water-quality and sewer-treatment standards.”
Stuart Loosemore, the Chamber’s director of government affairs and public policy, is more to the point. “There are two ways [for EPA] to be assistive: open up the check book; and, if there’s no money in the checkbook, then let’s spread out the time frame,” he says. “But in spreading it out, don’t come back to [UBWPAD] in three years and say, ‘Okay, on top of that, we’re going to have you do this, this and this as well.”
Loosemore becomes animated when talking about the EPA mandate for UBWPAD to charge an additional $250 million over five years to its residential and business ratepayers. “That’s what forces people to have to foreclose on their homes,” he declares, “because they can’t make either the water payment or the sewer payment or the mortgage or the electric bill.”
What would be a sufficient amount of time? “At least give us 10 years, maybe 15,” Loosemore responds. He adds that EPA also needs to avoid any more unfunded mandates over whatever the time period is. “That’s what makes it difficult,” he says. “You can’t meet those [additional costs] without skyrocketing rates to get the money.”
Problem is, science is continually discovering new factors that can harm either human or non-human life. What then? “Everything changes,” Loosemore answers. “Are eggs now healthy or not healthy for you? Am I supposed to eat just the whites or the yolk?”
Is Loosemore being anti-science? “I’m not being anti-science,” he says. “Science will certainly develop and change and we’ll figure other things out. But at the same time, we’ve got to allow us to at least catch up to what you asked us to do the first time. And sometimes, science gets it wrong.”
Therefore, is the Chamber’s position that the science is bad regarding EPA’s concern about the toxic effect of excessive nitrogen and phosphorous on the Blackstone River? “No,” Loosemore is quick to say. “I am not a scientist. We [at the Chamber] are not an office of scientists. We’re a business-advocacy organization, and we’re hearing from members that it is extremely difficult to operate a business with the cost side constantly going up.”
Loosemore says he is not aware of any reputable experts who maintain that the EPA mandate is based on bad science.
Not walking away from this issue
Donna Williams of the Heritage Corridor Commission thinks both the Chamber and UBWPAD ought to look to Rhode Island for a more reasoned approach to the EPA mandate. In particular, she refers to the Narragansett Bay Commission.
NBC has been nationally recognized for its environmental achievements to improve the condition of that saltwater body and its contributing freshwater rivers and streams. Among other actions, NBC has addressed a significant source of water degradation - the combined sewer overflows in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls – with only $9 million in federal funding, and only for Phase 1.
The first phase of NBC’s $1.1-billion three-phase project began in 2002 and was completed in 2008. The second phase is scheduled for completion by the end of 2014, while the third and final phase will begin in 2016 and be completed by 2021. Upon completion, NBC figures, the project will reduce sewer-overflow volume by about 98 percent.
Jamie Samons, NBC’s public-affairs manager, reports that her agency’s ratepayers have seen annual sewer bills rise from about $135 to $500 over the past 10 years. The key advice she shares with Greater Worcester is to educate the public – which Save the Bay does - that while sewer rates will go up, and the health of both the environment – to which humans are inextricably linked – and the economy will improve. “If we can create a cleaner bay,” she says, “then we can have a more robust fishing and shellfishing industry, and we can have a more robust tourism industry as well.”
Save the Bay reports that the number of annual shellfishing bans in Narragansett Bay will drop dramatically as a result of NBC’s efforts, and that some areas off limits to shellfishing could reopen for the first time in decades.
Our Ocean State neighbors have been willing to bite the bullet and spend what’s necessary to protect their waterways, Williams notes, and Greater Worcester should do likewise. Instead, she says, Greater Worcester “has certainly drawn a line in the sand, in saying, ‘Hell, no, we won’t go’.”
However, the Chamber’s Loosemore rejects the notion that Greater Worcester’s business and political leaders are dragging their feet on the EPA mandate. He points to Tim Murray’s June 20 request that the EPA be more flexible and reasoned in negotiating a consent agreement with UBWPAD.
What if the EPA declines to honor Murray’s request? “We’re certainly not walking away from this issue,” Loosemore answers. “It’s something that’s vital for all of our members.”
Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production. Follow him on Twitter @SteveRDAgostino.
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