R.I. vs. Mass. Regarding Blackstone River Discharges

By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — In a recent letter to Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin faults the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) for Blackstone River sewage that threatens Narragansett Bay. He has urged Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and Representatives Jim Langevin and David Cicilline to counter delays in enforcing standards of the federal Clean Water Act.

Kilmartin is in a legal battle with Massachusetts regarding permitted discharge limits of nitrogen and phosphorous from a water treatment facility near Worcester, Mass., on the Blackstone River. His letter followed a Jan. 19 decision by a three-judge panel at the U.S. First Court of Appeals in Boston that compelled the parties to mediation to resolve the issue and set limits on nutrient discharge.

On one side, the attorney general and a coalition of environmental groups see the Blackstone River as amongst Rhode Island’s most polluted and insist the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District (UBWPAD) adhere to limits set in a 2008 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permit.

On the other side, the district and the MassDEP are arguing “new information” should allow for less stringent limits.

“We believe that certain conditions in the draft discharge permit are not warranted based on our current knowledge of the river,” according to the UBWPAD. “These permit conditions are not supported by current science, and are not justified for several reasons.”

A July 20, 2011 letter from MassDEP to the EPA argues the side of water district. In his response, Kilmartin accused the head of the MassDEP of taking an “anti-environmental position … at the expense of our beautiful (Narragansett) Bay.” He explains how high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous could cause “the slow bio-chemical strangulation” of the upper bay.

The government report referenced by MassDEP in its letter to the EPA is neither permit specific or site specific, according to Kilmartin. Further, he claims, “the report is not substantive at all, but, rather, methodological.”

“The roots of this go back to the 1970s and the Clean Water Act,” said Mike Rubin, assistant attorney general and the state’s environmental advocate. “The limits are constantly being ratcheted up.”

The Massachusetts treatment plant in question is a whole generation behind in terms of implementing systems to control output, according to Rubin. This is in stark contrast to activity in Rhode Island, where, according to Kilmartin, treatment plants are making rapid progress in meeting limits imposed in 2006 permits.

The UBWPAD is responsible for 64 percent of the nitrogen load in the Blackstone River, said Kilmartin, citing EPA data.

At issue are rates that water users must pay in both states. Money to cover the costs of new technology comes from ratepayers. The district maintains that the technology upgrades required to meet limits imposed by the 2011 EPA order “impose an unfair burden on district ratepayers” and the permit “fails to consider $180 million in ongoing capital improvements.”

“The difficult economy cannot be an excuse for continued harm to Narragansett Bay,” Kilmartin said. “Financially distressed Woonsocket is on target to achieve an even tougher goal. A short-term difficult economic climate does not outweigh the long-term environmental harm UBWPAD is causing.”

Save The Bay has issued a statement in support of the attorney general’s office. “We strongly support the EPA permit for the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District. It’s about cleaning up a river that has long been polluted and neglected – and is just now coming back. We agree that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has not helped matters by undermining EPA. Rhode Islanders in the Providence and Blackstone River communities have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading wastewater treatment plants. It’s time now for UBWPAD to do its fair share to protect the Blackstone River and Narragansett Bay.”

At the crux of the matter is a question of shared burden. The debate is one that pits authorities in Rhode Island who argue for protection of natural resources and insist that Ocean State ratepayers have already made sacrifices to ensure a cleaner river against those across the border in the Upper Blackstone Valley who Kilmartin maintains have not.

As this legal battle stretches into years, the ultimate cost is being borne by the threatened marine life in Narragansett Bay and Blackstone River Valley residents who recreate along the river as it winds its way through the two states.

Basically, Kilmartin is insisting that the upper Blackstone River meet standards Rhode Island water treatment facilities on the lower Blackstone River have already met or will meet soon.