Organizations Sue EPA for Clean Water Violations

By ecoRI News staff

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), with co-plaintiff the Charles River Watershed Association, is suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its failure to enforce stormwater pollution standards in the Charles River watershed. The CLF also is moving forward with a similar suit over several water bodies in Rhode Island that it claims have been neglected by the EPA.

The Charles River, one of New England’s most iconic waterways, is notorious thanks to its history as one of the country’s dirtiest rivers. A decades-long effort to clean up the river has brought some gains, but the river is still far from achieving the water-quality rating that will make it safe for swimming and fishing year-round, according to Caitlin Peale Sloan, a staff attorney for CLF Massachusetts.

“The Environmental Protection Agency knows what is causing the Charles’ dirty water problems today — and it has the power to fix those problems,” she wrote in a recent blog post. “But instead, it has botched its legal obligation to protect the Charles and the wildlife and people that depend on it.”

As a mandatory requirement of the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA should have been notifying certain commercial, industrial and institutional operations responsible for significant stormwater runoff that they must obtain permits for their polluted discharges, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit claims the federal agency has let polluters slide, leaving the Charles and several Rhode Island waterways to be contaminated.

The Charles River Watershed Association and CLF effort to clean up these waterways began about a year ago, when, in April 2015, the organizations first sued EPA over this issue. Last summer, they voluntarily withdrew the suit in hopes of reaching a negotiated agreement with the EPA. The effort failed.

Stormwater pollution poses a serious threat to New England’s waters, according to Peale Sloan. During rain or snowmelt, water drains from parking lots and industrial parks, picking up pollutants and debris that are then dumped into local waterways, she wrote.

In Massachusetts, polluted stormwater runoff leaves the Charles River subject to frequent health advisories warning people to avoid contact with the water. Last summer, a major outbreak of toxic blue-green algae covered the river’s lower basin from the Weld Boathouse to the New Charles River Dam.

Such blooms are becoming increasingly common on the Charles, even as a growing body of evidence, including a recent study by the Royal Society of London, raises concerns about the health impacts of exposure to these blooms.

In Rhode Island, according to EPA’s own documentation, stormwater pollution has caused severe damage to the waters of Aquidneck Island and Mashapaug Pond in Providence. Aquidneck Island has experienced the closure of popular beach as a result of polluted stormwater. Several of the island’s drinking-water sources also been contaminated. Mashapaug Pond hasn’t been safe for drinking, fishing or swimming in decades.