Boston — Under threat of a lawsuit by environmentalists, the outgoing administration of Governor Mitt Romney has dropped its last minute proposal to eliminate most oversight of toxic chemicals that industries are discharging every day into the state’s sewer systems. Some toxics can “pass through” sewage treatment plants undetected and seriously pollute surface waters.
For nearly a decade the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has allowed industries to discharge 1.4 million gallons of wastewater per day into municipal sewage plants without monitoring or permitting, in clear violation of the Clean Water Act Regulations. After PEER obtained copies of hundreds of letters from DEP telling companies that they need not apply for sewer permits, the Romney administration abruptly proposed regulatory changes to formally exempt 90% of industrial sewer dischargers without even determining the amount of toxic chemicals in their wastewater.
A coalition of 17 environmental and watershed organizations, spearheaded by the Neponset River Watershed Association (NepRWA) and PEER, objected, arguing the plan would be a giant step backward by making it more difficult to determine which chemicals are entering state waters, passing the buck to ill-equipped local agencies and crippling anti-pollution enforcement. They threatened to seek a court injunction to prevent the new rules from taking effect.
In response, the Romney administration agreed to a number of changes proposed by NepRWA Advocacy Director Steve Pearlman, a former DEP employee. Most importantly the final rules will require dozens of industries that are most likely to have toxics in their wastewater (such as manufacturers, carpet cleaners, garages and laboratories) to report these toxics to DEP and the sewage treatment plants. However, it left it to the incoming Patrick Administration to establish within the next two years the precise rules for industrial toxics reporting. A number of other key problems, such as allowing large new subdivisions to hook up to failing sewer systems, will also be left to Governor-elect Patrick to sort out.
“Governor Romney has been missing in action during virtually his entire term on addressing critical water pollution vulnerabilities,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former lawyer and biologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, noting that only 5% of Massachusetts waters meet minimal standards for fishing and swimming. “These last minute revisions, while welcome, are a transparent attempt to prevent his record from being besmirched in his upcoming presidential campaign.”