Boston — A plan to finally deal with Massachusetts’ dysfunctional industrial wastewater program is a giant step backward, according to comments filed today by a coalition of conservation groups. The new plan, first unveiled in September, makes it more difficult to determine which chemicals are entering state waters, cripples anti-pollution enforcement and passes the buck to ill-equipped local agencies.

Last month, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) revealed that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has for nearly a decade allowed hundreds of industries to discharge 1.4 million gallons of wastewater per day into municipal sewage plants without state permits through “forbearance letters.” The issuance of forbearance letters, which waive all permit limits, monitoring requirements, holding tank approvals and state fees on a supposedly “temporary” basis, is in apparent violation of the Massachusetts Clean Water Act, that mandates that DEP issue permits to all sewer dischargers unless they are exempted by regulation.

In late September, DEP finally proposed regulations to replace forbearance letters. These proposed rules, however, would eliminate individual state permits for virtually all but the largest industrial sewage users regardless of the toxicity of their discharges. This means that streams of harmful chemicals could reach Boston Harbor and other state waters with no warning to municipalities, fishermen or consumers.

“Governor Romney spent his entire term asleep at the switch when it came to the Commonwealth’s deteriorating water quality; now he is leaving all the hard work for his successor,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former lawyer and biologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Simply put, Romney’s sewage plan stinks.”

A coalition of groups, spearheaded by the Neponset River Watershed Association and PEER have protested the plan and requested an official opinion of its legality. The groups point out that the proposed rules threaten state water quality by —

  • Flying Blind. DEP will still be unable to evaluate whether sewer dischargers are introducing pollutants that “pass through” sewage treatment plants untreated;
  • Handcuffing Enforcement. The proposed sewage permit streamlining will make it difficult if not impossible to trace a dangerous pollutant back to its source once it is discovered; and
  • Sewage Duties Flowing Downhill. The plan puts the major responsibilities on already overtaxed local sewer departments and sewage treatment plants.

Apart from the public health concerns, the groups warn of ill effects on aquatic life and the environment. Currently, only 5% of Massachusetts waters meet minimal standards for fishing and swimming.

“Proper handling of our industrial wastes is the key step the Commonwealth needs to take to attain clean water goals,” Steve Pearlman of the Neponset River Watershed Association added. “The Romney plan should be withdrawn to allow Governor-elect Deval Patrick to craft an approach that actually works.”


See the environmental coalition comments

Read about the DEP forbearance letters

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