Blackstone River Water Improvements

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Blackstone River  Advocates,


The  Telegram's second part of the series appeared today, and focuses on costs.   A companion article highlights successes on the Assabet.  The articles are  below, and here are the links to the Telegram website.  Much more  information is on the site.


Donna  Williams


December  06. 2012 4:49AM

Blackstone  debate goes beyond dollars





Rachel B.       Calabro, a community advocate with Save the Bay, talks about the duckweed       floating on the Blackstone River in Central Falls, Rhode Island as her       shadow is cast on the surface. (T&G Staff/RICK       CINCLAIR)

Millions  of plastic pods that look like honeycomb-shaped cereal bob in tanks of frothy  wastewater alongside the Providence River.

It's a cold, sunny day at the  Field's Point Wastewater Treatment Facility in Providence, the second-largest  sewage treatment plant in New England and one of the final shoreline landmarks  on a waterway that starts in Worcester as the Blackstone River and flows some 48  miles into the Seekonk River, the Providence River and, ultimately, Narragansett  Bay.

The pods bounce away, gripping bacteria stirred into the murky mix  to consume nitrogen before the facility's treated water flows into the  Providence River. The Narragansett Bay Commission, the public authority that  oversees sewers and treatment plants around the bay, is spending $59 million on  the nitrogen-removal technology under a consent agreement with the state. Add to  that more than $300 million in other improvements in the commission's sprawling  system through 2018 and it becomes clear why Providence households that paid an  average of $150 a year for sewer services 10 years ago are now paying $400 to  $450 a year.

“It's been dramatic,” and it's not over, said Jamie R.  Samons, the commission's public affairs manager. “The rates will, not only here,  but across the country, continue to go up.”

Worcester and the Central  Massachusetts communities that send waste to the Upper Blackstone Water  Pollution Abatement District facility in Millbury are confronting that fact now.  Even as the district launches a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court over  Environmental Protection Agency orders to lower nitrogen and phosphorus in  treated wastewater sent to the Blackstone River, district officials are meeting  with the EPA and preparing for upgrades.

An estimated $208 million in  upgrades, plus higher operating costs, could hike the average household's bill  to flush toilets, wash dishes and take showers. Robert L. Moylan Jr.,  Worcester's commissioner of public works and chairman of the Upper Blackstone  district, said it could add $250 per year to each household's bill. He has long  argued costly upgrades should be balanced by what they would do for the  Blackstone River.

“The entities that are part of the Upper Blackstone  are looking forward to making improvements to the water quality of the  Blackstone. We aren't opposed to that, but what I suggest is we need to do it in  a smart way,” Mr. Moylan said. “Cost needs to be a criterion we measure  against.”

Yet the Clean Water Act, which the EPA enforces, says cost  should not be a factor, said Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the Bay,  a Rhode Island environmental organization that advocates for Narragansett Bay.  Besides, he said, sewer rate payers aren't the only ones bearing costs.

“There is a societal cost to not being able to fish, swim,” Mr. Stone  said. “When you talk about cost, you have to think holistically and who is  bearing that cost.”

The battle between the Upper Blackstone and the EPA  focuses on phosphorus and nitrogen. Both occur in human waste and can harm water  bodies.

Phosphorus feeds aquatic plants in fresh water. Nitrogen feeds  aquatic plants in salt water. Plants attract microbes that break down the  vegetation and consume dissolved oxygen that fish need.

The EPA requires  the Upper Blackstone plant in Millbury to wring phosphorus and nitrogen out of  wastewater because the facility's discharged water mixes with both the fresh  water of the Blackstone River and the salt water of downstream estuaries.

The EPA wants the Upper Blackstone plant to limit phosphorus in its  discharges during warm-weather months to 0.1 milligrams per liter of treated  wastewater. That's roughly equivalent to one drop of water in an Olympic-size  swimming pool. In July, the facility's phosphorus levels totaled 2.2 milligrams  per liter of treated wastewater.

For nitrogen, the EPA wants the Upper  Blackstone to limit the chemical to 5 milligrams per liter of treated  wastewater. That's the same level the Field's Point treatment plant downstream  in Providence is required to meet, and it's approximately equivalent to five  drops of water in a bathtub. The Upper Blackstone facility's average in July was  5.2 milligrams per liter of treated wastewater.

Environmental engineers  expect the EPA to push for even lower nutrient levels in the years ahead.  Woonsocket, which also discharges treated wastewater to the Blackstone River,  must lower its nitrogen output to 3 milligrams per liter of treated water. With  phosphorus, said Jonathan A. Keaney, a project engineer at the Andover firm  Brown and Caldwell, which worked on recent upgrades to the Maynard Water  Pollution Control Facility, “it's pretty widely discussed it might go to 0.05  milligrams per liter.”

Even before it tackles an upgrade, the Upper  Blackstone district is out about $3.6 million for costs associated with its  battle against the EPA. The district spent $2.1 million on a river study that  the EPA rejected. It also piled up about $1.5 million in legal costs, according  to Mr. Moylan.

To hit the new targets, the Upper Blackstone district  would have to remove contaminated soil, build two new wastewater treatment  tanks, modify four existing tanks, add a pump station, construct a  phosphorus-removal facility estimated at $27.9 million and work on the water  disinfection process on the grounds of the existing Millbury facility, according  to a 2007 report from the consulting firm now known as CDM Smith.

The  EPA considers the estimate vastly inflated.

“We're confident the  estimates that they've publicly touted are very high,” said David Pincumbe, an  environmental engineer with the EPA in Boston. “It's going to be significantly  less than that, but we don't have a good estimate and we won't until they've  done the planning and the design.”

Yet even EPA estimated upgrades would  add $5 to $7 a month, or $60 to $84 a year, to the average household's sewer  bill. A typical Worcester household using about 90,000 gallons of water a year  would have paid $486 in sewer fees in 2010, according to the most recent annual  survey of Massachusetts sewer rates by engineering firm Tighe & Bond of  Westfield. The median annual sewer rate in the state was $600 a year.

“It's not like the district rate payers will be paying more than their  fair share,” said Christopher M. Kilian, senior lawyer with the Conservation Law  Foundation, an environmental organization that had asked the EPA to impose even  stricter nitrogen limits on the Upper Blackstone district. “There are some  ratepayers that are less well off in communities surrounding Worcester that are  paying more.”

Upper Blackstone officials have no patience for that line  of argument, because they maintain that lowering nitrogen and phosphorus from  discharges at the Millbury plant will do nothing to improve the health of a  river dotted with dams that trap nutrients and pollutants from years past.

“In my opinion, it's wasted money,” said Jeffrey Mitchell, who  represents Auburn on the Upper Blackstone board.

On a quiet stretch of  the Blackstone River in Central Falls, R.I., Rachel B. Calabro dips her hand  into the water and scoops up a layer of tiny floating plants.

The  community advocate for Save the Bay stands miles downstream from the Millbury  facility. Yet the green duckweed on her palm signals that the water flowing  through nearby Lonsdale Marsh and downward toward the sea contains too much  phosphorus.

“In the stagnant areas of the marsh, you'll see it covering  the entire surface of the river,” said Ms. Calabro. “It grows where there are a  lot of nutrients in the water.”

Near Save the Bay's Providence  headquarters even farther downstream, Mr. Stone points out signs of excessive  nitrogen in the water: decomposed algae drawn up from the mucky bottom of the  bay and reedy shore plants known as phragmites.

Something is missing,  too: eel grass, which grows in healthy salt water.

Wastewater treatment  facilities, including those along the Blackstone River, funnel about 220 million  gallons of treated water into Narragansett Bay every day and are the single  largest source of nitrogen reaching the estuary, he said. Yet as those  facilities lower nitrogen output, the bay will start to recover, just as  nitrogen reductions helped Boston Harbor and Tampa Bay in Florida in recent  years, he said.

“We fully expect to see a healthier ecosystem that can  sustain fish, that can sustain plants,” Mr. Stone  said.


December  06. 2012 4:30AM

Assabet River  facilities find way to meet water quality standards




Westboro       Wastewater Treatment Plant manager Christopher W. Pratt holds up an Imhoff       settling cone to show the layers in a sludge/sand mixture sample taken       from the Actiflo clarifier tank in the Phosphorous Treatment Building at       the Westboro facility. Ultra-fine silica sand has settled to the bottom of       the cone, with the dark brown ferric phosphorous sludge settled just above       it. The Westboro plant uses ferric chloride as the primary chemical in       their Actiflo process to remove phosphorus from wastewater before the       effluent is discharged into the Assabet River. (T&G Staff/PAUL       KAPTEYN)

While  the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District fights federal orders to  wring more phosphorus from treated wastewater, four smaller treatment plants  stretching from Westboro to Maynard are successfully meeting similar  requirements with the water they send to the Assabet River.

Facilities in  Westboro, Marlboro, Hudson and Maynard have spent millions of dollars on  different technologies, and their experience offers a glimpse into what it takes  to reduce pollutants flowing into troubled rivers.

“Communities really  deserve congratulations for making these investments in their wastewater  treatment, which is really an investment in the future of the rivers,” said  Alison Field-Juma, executive director of OARS, the Organization for the Assabet,  Sudbury and Concord Rivers.

A product of human waste, phosphorus feeds  plants in slow waterways. Microbes that feed on the plants suck oxygen out of  the water, and without oxygen, fish die. As recently as September, the Upper  Blackstone’s treated water contained 0.2 to 0.8 milligrams of phosphorus per  liter of water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the Upper  Blackstone to bring phosphorus levels down to 0.1 milligrams per liter of water.

Wastewater treatment plants on the Assabet River are attaining that  level by adding chemicals and thickeners to treated water. The agents bind to  phosphorus, creating flocculation particles, or floc, big enough to settle out  or skim away.

In Westboro near the Assabet River’s headwaters, the  Westboro Wastewater Treatment Facility started operating an ActiFlo system from  Veolia Environnement SA’s water division in March as part of a $50 million plant  upgrade.

Plant operators add an iron salt known as ferric chloride to  wastewater that has already gone through screening, settling and biological  treatment. Then the system injects ultrafine sand that binds to floc and drags  it to the bottom of a tube-lined tank. The sand then wrests away from the  particles and gets reused, while the system removes the floc as sludge.

The Marlboro Westerly Waste Treatment Works uses a Blue PRO system that  was installed as part of a $32 million upgrade. The system from Blue Water  Technologies Inc. uses cone-shaped sand filters to remove floc from water. Pumps  then wash the floc off the sand.

“Since we started it up in January,  we’re below our 0.1 milligram per liter average,” said Harry P. Butland Jr.,  chief operator of the plant.

Hudson’s wastewater plant installed an  AquaDAF system by Suez Environnement’s Degr
?¿½mont  business in 2009 as part of a $16 million upgrade. The AquaDAF process allows  floc to float to the surface of a tank of water, where a long piece of metal  skims the fluffy brown material into a trough for removal as sludge.

“There are electrical costs, but the advantage of it is I’m using about  the same number of chemicals I was before the permit changed,” said Mark L.  Concheri, the plant’s chief operator.

Maynard’s Wastewater Treatment  Facility uses a CoMag system from Cambridge Water Technology, now part of  Siemens AG, that was installed as part of an $11.4 million upgrade in March  2011. The system mixes treated wastewater with a thickener called polyaluminum  chloride, which binds to phosphorus, and then adds a heavy form of iron called  magnetite. Particles settle as sludge to the bottom of a tank. The sludge goes  to a magnetic drum that draws off the magnetite for reuse.

“My rolling  average this year, I believe, is 0.07 (milligrams of phosphorus per liter of  treated water), but I’ve had results show 0.05,” said David A. Simmons, project  manager with engineering company Weston & Sampson Inc., the contractor that  runs the facility. “I’m researching what can be used to give me less than 0.05.”

Assabet River plants are not a perfect model for the much bigger Upper  Blackstone facility. They handle smaller volumes of wastewater, and some do not  treat stormwater. The Assabet River is also shorter than the Blackstone River  and flows through a less urbanized area.

In at least one way, the rivers  are similar. It’s not clear how upgrades at facilities will impact either  waterway.

Study of the Assabet River has shown “the main source of  phosphorus is from the wastewater treatment plants, and that phosphorus is the  main cause of the problem,” said Ms. Field-Juma of OARS. “What isn’t clear is  when you lower the phosphorus concentration, at what point is it no longer a  cause?”

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The  Telegram's third part of the series appeared today, and focuses on the need for  a holistic approach to restoration.  A companion article highlights the  issue of dams.  The articles are below, and here are the links to the  Telegram website.  Much more information is on the site, with excellent  graphics.


Our  congratulations to the Telegram for (finally) researching and presenting the  many facets of this very complex river system.




December  09. 2012 5:16AM

No single  answer for restoring Blackstone




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The       Blackstone River passes under Hartford Avenue East in Uxbridge, south of       Rice City Pond. (T&G Staff/RICK   CINCLAIR)

While  regulators, wastewater plant operators, hydroelectric managers and natural  resource advocates argue about who needs to invest in cleaning up the  Blackstone, one thing is clear: multiple factors contribute to the river's  impairment. Multiple approaches are needed to clean it up.

To make the  waterway truly fishable and swimmable, river advocates and those who discharge  into it are calling for a more holistic approach to cleaning it.

“What  we're really trying to do is manage these systems sustainably,” said Timothy J.  Downs, chairman and associate professor of the environmental science and policy  graduate program at Clark University.

“Where is phosphorus coming from?  Stormwater and wastewater from an urban area,” he said. “How do we reduce the  sources of the phosphorus the Blackstone (sewage plant) is being asked to treat?  It's a more efficient way to solve the problem: source reduction.”

Mr.  Downs said Worcester's aging sewer and stormwater systems are inadequate.  Combined with the large amount of paved surfaces that prevent stormwater from  being filtered in the ground, a notable amount of polluted runoff ends up in the  river. The runoff carries nutrients from fertilizer and animal waste, bacteria  and toxic substances such as motor oil.

The U.S. Environmental Protection  Agency, which issues wastewater discharge permits for sewage plants, also issues  permits to control stormwater runoff. They are called MS4 permits, which stands  for municipal separate storm sewer systems.

The six minimum control  measures under the MS4 permit issued in 2003 for small communities in the  Blackstone watershed include public education and outreach; public  participation; illicit discharge detection and elimination; construction site  runoff control; post-construction site runoff control; and pollution prevention,  such as street sweeping and catch-basin cleaning.

The draft permit issued  in 2010 for small MS4 communities includes requirements to map and test outfalls  to the waterway, among other actions.

Worcester is facing a new MS4  stormwater permit as well, which was released as a draft in 2008.

Earlier  this year the EPA launched a voluntary program to integrate municipal planning  for stormwater and wastewater control.

“There might be a benefit for  municipalities to present to us all of their needs so we can prioritize where  limited dollars can be spent,” said Michael D. Wagner, senior enforcement  counsel for EPA's New England region.

“It does not change compliance  standards,” Mr. Wagner said. “It allows flexibility to schedule the  work.”

In other words, if a city needs to upgrade its sewage plant and  its stormwater system to meet EPA requirements, it could have more time to carry  out the work in a way that makes sense.

No community has submitted a  proposal for integrated stormwater/wastewater management yet, so it's not  certain how practical the strategy will be.

“The future is unknown. The  future is, I think, a lot of happy talk out of EPA,” said Robert L. Moylan Jr.,  Worcester commissioner of public works and parks and chairman of the Upper  Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District.

“The idea of integrated  planning is a wonderful one. It makes eminent sense. I just don't think EPA is  serious about that,” he said.

Others are more hopeful. The new integrated  format “gets permits out of the silos,” according to Donna M. Williams,  watershed advocate for the Blackstone River Coalition and chairwoman of the  nonprofit Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Inc.

“We  environmentalists think this is the way to move forward.”

Elizabeth  Scott, deputy chief of surface water protection for the R.I. Department of  Environmental Management's Office of Water Resources, said, “Our studies have  shown the wastewater treatment facilities have been identified as the biggest  sources of nutrients to the river.

“Nutrients are not the only thing  wrong with this river. There's also bacteria and metal impairment. There really  does need to be a holistic look at this river.”

Stormwater, wastewater  and drinking water management comprise a “three-legged stool” needed to protect  environmental and public health, Ms. Scott said.

As the river's  restoration struggles forward, a new use for the historic waterway is cropping  up: recreation.

Donald Martin, co-owner of Blackstone Valley Outfitters  in Lincoln, R.I., has had customers from all over the world rent kayaks and  bikes or fish in the trout-stocked river.

“They're looking for the  solitude; they're looking for the quiet. And the quick water, too, — we take  them on some whitewater,” Mr. Martin said.

He acknowledged that portions  of the river still need cleaning up. Debris has accumulated behind dams, and the  weedy growth in areas like Uxbridge's Rice City Pond can make paddling tough  going.

Despite visible remnants of the Blackstone's heavy use, one family  from South Africa, who took an evening kayak tour, told Mr. Martin, “We've  paddled a lot of places and this is the most beautiful river we've ever been  in.”

Mr. Martin said that after the 48-mile bikeway along the river is  completed, recreation and related businesses should take off  more.

“They're starting to find the Blackstone has a lot to offer,” he  said.

Annual events along the Blackstone such as the Greenway Challenge  adventure race and the Blackstone River Watershed Association's canoe and kayak  race continue to grow in popularity.

Mr. Downs said that cleaning the  Blackstone offers an opportunity for the whole community to understand the  impacts of human activity on a critical natural resource. And solutions work  best when everyone has a stake in the outcome.

“It all comes back to the  central question of what do we want the Blackstone to look like 10, 15 or 20  years from now,” he said.

“What are the alternative futures for the  Blackstone? What do we have to do?”

Contact Susan Spencer by email at


December  09. 2012 4:44AM

Impact of dams  weighs on Blackstone



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Valley Falls       Dam on the Blackstone River. (T&G Staff/RICK       CINCLAIR)

Just a  few miles below the point where the region's major sewage treatment plant pours  treated wastewater into the Blackstone River, the broken remains of an unwanted  dam stretch across the waterway in Millbury.

Engineers, regulators and  even its owner, National Grid, want the Millbury Dam to come down so the  Blackstone can once again run free through its channel.

Yet the dam — reportedly built in 1828 — remains, and a key reason lies buried under the water  next to it.

“The hard nut to crack there, which is typical of any dam on  the Blackstone, is the sediment behind the dam,” said Christopher Hatfield, a  project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which recently revived  studies of what it would take to remove the Millbury Dam. “These dams have  captured a lot of contaminated soils over the years. The river is challenging as  it is, and a lot of the contaminated stuff has been covered up over the years by  cleaner stuff. You can't expose that.”

The impact of dams weighs on the  river as the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District is  contemplating costly upgrades to its sewage treatment plant in Millbury. The  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants the facility to reduce levels of  phosphorus and nitrogen in treated water discharged to the Blackstone River. The  district's officials from Worcester and surrounding towns argue their efforts  could cost $208 million and do nothing to improve a river blocked by multiple  dams that trap the troublesome nutrients.

Yet the cost of dredging and  removing sediments loaded with arsenic, metals and other contaminants from the  river's industrial past complicates any calculation. A 2007 study by the firm  Fuss & O'Neill of West Springfield estimated it could cost $2.2 million to  $4.8 million to remove the Millbury Dam.

In addition, many of the 18  major dams stretching from Millbury to Pawtucket, R.I., sit in districts listed  on the National Register of Historic Places.

At least four dams — in  Northbridge, Blackstone, Woonsocket, R.I., and Cumberland/Central Falls, R.I. — are federally licensed hydropower facilities. Four more in Rhode Island are  seeking to start hydropower operations.

Fisherville Dam in Grafton holds  back a pond that has become a wildlife habitat for migrating birds.

“Each  dam is its own story, and yes, a lot of the dams are not going to go away  because people are invested in that pond, that resource,” said Peter G. Coffin,  coordinator for the Blackstone River Coalition in Massachusetts and Rhode  Island. Yet, he added, “if it can't be taken down, you have to manage the  dam.”

The Blackstone River's modern history and health are inextricably  intertwined with its dams.

Entrepreneurs built dams on the river as early  as the 18th century to harness water power for mills. Their enterprises turned a  tumbling waterway stretching about 48 miles from Worcester to estuaries in Rhode  Island into a slower river dotted with ponds and watery areas called  impoundments. At the peak of dam construction, the river contained about one dam  for every mile it flowed.

Factories dumped waste into the river, which  became so foul-smelling that mill owners eliminated windows from their riverside  buildings.

“There are horror stories that parents would tell their kids:  'Don't fall in the river. Your skin will fall off,' ” said Chuck Arning, a  National Park Service ranger with the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley  National Heritage Corridor.

The Blackstone River is far cleaner today,  yet the dams grip the sediments of the industrial past. They also trap sediments  loaded with phosphorus, which feeds plants in freshwater. As plants decompose,  microbes rob the river of dissolved oxygen that fish need to  survive.

“Those are the effects that dams have on river quality,” said  Beth Lambert, manager of the river restoration program for the Massachusetts  Division of Ecological Restoration. “In urban environments, because rivers are  already stressed, those impacts become magnified.”

Robert L. Moylan Jr.,  Worcester's commissioner of public works and chairman of the Upper Blackstone  district, has called the structures the “damn dams.” When groups proposed adding  hydropower facilities to several Blackstone River dams in Rhode Island, the  district tried to intervene in the permitting process last year, arguing “the  dams are the single most important factor regarding — and primary impediment to — the attainment of water quality standards on the Blackstone River.” The  Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected the argument, saying the district  missed the deadline to seek a rehearing.

Although funding for dam removal  and cleanup is difficult to assemble, state officials have learned how to manage  expenses by participating in 20 dam removals since 2007, according to Tim  Purinton, director of the state's Division of Ecological Resources.  Massachusetts is on pace to remove nine dams this year and six to seven dams  next year, he said.

“We're doing more and more projects in these urban  areas,” Mr. Purinton said. “What's neat is those costs are being driven  down.”

At the Fisherville Dam area in South Grafton, multiple studies  have uncovered contaminants ranging from metals to hazardous chemicals called  polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Fisherville Redevelopment Corp., which  controls about 32 acres of land and the pond's water rights, has spent close to  $2 million cleaning up pollutants since it acquired the property in  2004.

Its tactics include an “Eco-Machine” that uses fungi and other  natural elements in multiple tanks to filter and cleanse contaminated river  water.

“I think we need to figure out long-term solutions that are  incremental and do continuous improvement in the environment,” said Eugene N.  Bernat, vice president of Fisherville Redevelopment. “It took us 200 years to  get to this point. For us to expect we can do this in six months, two years, two  decades even, given a limited pot of money, is naive.”

Contact Lisa  Eckelbecker at

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Peterson Puritan Superfund Site



The Remedial Investigation Report’s full text can be accessed through both  EPA’s website and the Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the  Blackstone’s website and also at  the Cumberland and Lincoln public libraries’ reference desks. To facilitate your  review, key sections of the document can be found in the attachment to this  e-mail prepared by BRWC/FOB’s technical advisors under the Peterson Puritan  Technical Assistance Grant awarded to the Council by the EPA in 2010.


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Here are the links:
December 02. 2012 4:39AM

How much is a clean Blackstone worth?

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Water       flowing from the wastewater treatment plant, at left, converges with the       Blackstone River, at right. (T&G Staff/CHRISTINE     PETERSON)
You can see it clearly, standing on a  footbridge along the Blackstone River Bikeway in Millbury: A channel comes in  from the left, as you look north toward Worcester, its path carpeted with weedy  green plants and algae. On the right, the water from the Blackstone River runs  nearly plant-free.

It's the carpet of green that troubles water quality  advocates and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — evidence, they say, of  excessive plant growth fed by phosphorus and nitrogen from the Upper Blackstone  Water Pollution Abatement District's wastewater treatment plant a few thousand  feet up the channel.

Overabundant aquatic growth is choking the river,  the EPA says, here near its headwaters and downstream as it flows into Rhode  Island's Seekonk River, Providence River and ultimately Narragansett  Bay.

A four-year legal battle between the water pollution abatement  district and the EPA about who is responsible for the water troubles and who  should shoulder the expensive burden of cleaning it up has sparked national  attention.

The EPA ordered the district to reduce its output of  phosphorus, nitrogen and aluminum, another pollutant, in its 2008 discharge  permit.

On Aug. 3, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an  appeal by the district and ordered the new limits to go into effect. On Oct. 10,  the court refused to rehear the appeal.

The district plans to file the  case with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Regionally, the health of the river  and potentially millions of dollars to ratepayers — some say more than $200  million for plant upgrades (or more than $200 per household) — are at  stake.

Much of the debate comes down to determining how clean is clean:  What standards must be met and how should they be measured? The answers aren't  just technical; they affect how resources will be spent and what trade-offs will  be made.

“The Blackstone River is nationally significant,” said Donna M.  Williams of Grafton, retired state watershed advocate for the Blackstone River  Coalition and chairwoman of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage  Corridor Inc., a nonprofit organization working to preserve the region's  history, culture and natural resources.

“It's an American Heritage River,  one of only 14 in the country, and this is what it looks like. I have trouble  with that,” Ms. Williams said.

Upper Blackstone plant officials say that  the scientific model used as the basis for the discharge permit, which sets a  limit on the amount of pollutants the plant can discharge into the river, is  faulty, however.

Robert L. Moylan Jr., Worcester commissioner of public  works and parks and chairman of the Upper Blackstone district, said, “First and  foremost, we need to have some ability to establish good science. Secondly, it's  the public's money. It should be spent wisely.”

When the Clean Water Act  was enacted 40 years ago, prohibiting any entity from discharging into a  waterway without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from  the EPA or its delegated state authority, the focus was on toxic pollutants such  as chemicals and metals.

More recently, the threat is seen coming from  nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which come from human and animal  waste, fertilizer, and until recently, detergent. The elements enter the river  through sewage plants, septic and storm water runoff.

This  nutrient-caused problem, accelerated by human activity, is called cultural  eutrophication. It leads to algae blooms and “dead zones,” lifeless bodies of  water.

Eutrophication works in freshwater when phosphorus feeds aquatic  plants and algae. As the plants grow, die and decompose, bacteria consume oxygen  in the water, endangering fish and other aquatic wildlife that need the  oxygen.

The same process occurs downstream in Rhode Island's saltwater  Narragansett Bay from excessive nitrogen. A decade ago, the bay had fish kills,  red tides and shellfish poisoning linked to high levels of nitrogen and low  dissolved oxygen.

Cultural eutrophication is the second human assault in  the Blackstone River's history, and restoring the river isn't easy.

For  much of the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial dumping from mills along the  Blackstone led the EPA to call it America's most polluted river in 1990.

At the peak of the Industrial Revolution, 45 dams lined its 48-mile path  from Worcester to Providence, accumulating toxic sediments of heavy metals and  other industrial waste. Eighteen major dams remain and create pools of stagnant  water where algae can flourish. Removing the dams to flush out pollutants would  risk releasing the accumulated toxic sediment.

With industrial dumping  stopped, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are working toward making the river  system a resource for recreation, tourism and commercial fishing. Bills have  been filed in Congress to establish a Blackstone River Valley National  Historical Park.

But while the river no longer runs different colors  depending on the day's color of textile dye, wastewater discharge threatens the  Blackstone's potential to once again become fishable and swimmable.

The  Upper Blackstone treatment plant is the largest discharger on the Blackstone,  accounting for 70 percent of the river's municipal wastewater flow, according to  court documents.

Serving Worcester and portions of Auburn, West  Boylston, Holden, Rutland, Leicester, Oxford, Millbury, Paxton, Shrewsbury and  Sutton, the plant discharges an average of 30 million to 40 million gallons of  effluent a day. It is designed to process 56 million gallons a day.

In  heavy rains, when stormwater mixes with wastewater, it can release up to 160  million gallons a day with partial treatment of the water.

Twelve  wastewater facilities line the Blackstone, Seekonk and Providence watersheds,  but most discharge a small fraction of the Upper Blackstone  amount.

Angelo S. Liberti, chief of surface water protection for the  Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management's Office of Water Resources,  said the Blackstone River Initiative computer model, which tracks how nutrients  move down the river, found that more than 90 percent of the Upper Blackstone  plant's nitrogen load reaches the mouth of the river.

“Nobody's saying  they're the only source of nitrogen to the bay, but they're definitely one of  the top contributors,” he said.

The Upper Blackstone plant began  operation in 1976, constructed with 75 percent federal funding through the Clean  Water Act, 15 percent state funding and 10 percent local funding, according to  Karla H. Sangrey, engineer director/treasurer. It cost Worcester less than $3  million.

In 2002, following a consent agreement with the EPA to meet its  2001 permit, the district invested $180 million to upgrade the plant. The  project was completed in 2009.

The district argued in its recent appeal  that the EPA erroneously issued its 2008 permit before the new system was fully  online.

The upgraded plant relies largely on mechanical processes and  nutrient-consuming “bugs,” or bacteria and plankton (microorganisms termed “activated sludge”), to clean the wastewater and remove nitrogen, phosphorus,  dissolved metals and other pollutants.

“Most of what we rely on here is  biological processes, with a few chemicals for disinfection,” Ms. Sangrey said  in a tour of the plant.

But the plant isn't meeting the 2008 permit limit  of 0.1 milligrams per liter for phosphorus and barely misses the new nitrogen  limit of 5.0 milligrams per liter. In July, effluent samples averaged 0.22  milligrams per liter phosphorus and 5.2 milligrams per liter  nitrogen.

“Let's maximize the performance of this plant and see where we  are with water quality. That's the frustration,” Ms. Sangrey said. “It performs  great and approaches the limits that they (EPA) want; it exceeds performance on  the existing (2001) permit.”

Ms. Sangrey said the district also objected  to the 2008 permit's requirement to fully treat the maximum peak flow amount of  160 million gallons per day, which would occur only in major storms.

“Ninety percent of the time you'd have all this plant we wouldn't use,” she said.

Meeting the new standard would require a major construction  project and would also likely mean that more chemicals would have to be used in  the treatment process, according to Ms. Sangrey.

Besides the timing of  the 2008 permit, the district's battle has focused on the models used by the EPA  to set its phosphorus and nitrogen limits, which they argue don't accurately  reflect the Blackstone River and Narragansett Bay.

The First Circuit  Court of Appeals ruled that the EPA exercised rational judgment by including,  among its data sources, a model developed in the 1980s by the Marine Ecosystems  Research Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island. The weight of evidence  suggested the EPA's conclusions were within a “zone of  reasonableness.”

The court used the same argument rejecting a challenge  from the Conservation Law Foundation that the 2008 permit's standard for  nitrogen wasn't strict enough. The CLF argued that a nitrogen limit of 3  milligrams per liter, instead of 5 as set in the permit, was needed to meet  downstream Rhode Island water-quality standards.

The MERL model,  developed through a series of tank experiments to reflect a range of sewage  scenarios, was designed to simulate conditions of Narragansett Bay. The EPA has  used the model for national nitrogen-limit standards and the Rhode Island  Department of Environmental Management has factored it into limits for its  sewage plants.

Similarly, the Upper Blackstone district objected to the  EPA's setting phosphorus limits based on national standards and other regional  studies.

The district argued that the EPA should have waited for results  from a Hydrological Simulation Program — FORTRAN computer model it was  developing with the University of Massachusetts and its consultants, CDM Smith.

“That study essentially says that it doesn't make a difference what the  water quality is of the discharge at the Upper Blackstone, in terms of meeting  water-quality standards,” said Mr. Moylan. He said even if the district were to  invest in the upgrades, “We are not going to meet water-quality standards. They  will not be met until we deal with impoundments (dams).”

The EPA recently  rejected the district's HSPF model in the draft permit for a smaller wastewater  treatment plant in Grafton, questioning its value for simulating future  scenarios based on obsolete data on phosphorus discharge from downstream  plants.

“Why is their (the district's) science any more trustworthy than  EPA's?” Ms. Williams asked. “It's dueling models and dueling science. It's in  every environmental argument. Then you never get to an endpoint, if that's your  argument.”

Others seek more certainty before making decisions with large  financial implications.

Timothy J. Downs, chairman and associate  professor of environmental science and policy graduate program at Clark  University, said, “Unless you have an idea of the relative importance of the  sources (of pollutants), it's hard to know whether stricter regulation is  warranted. The models are not quite there yet.”

He said that land use  along the Blackstone has changed since the EPA's MERL model was developed, and  more phosphorus and nitrogen could be coming into the river from lawn  fertilizer, septic and other runoff.

The Upper Blackstone isn't the only  treatment plant scrambling to meet stringent new limits. EPA issued draft  permits in September to downstream plants including Grafton, Northbridge and  Uxbridge. While the limits aren't quite as tight, with 0.2 milligrams per liter  total phosphorus and 8 milligrams per liter nitrogen, the plants only discharge  up to 2 million to 2.5 million gallons per day.

“We were hoping the big  fish (Upper Blackstone) would lead the battle for us little fish,” said Uxbridge  Department of Public Works Director Benn S. Sherman.

Mr. Sherman said  the cost to upgrade the 35-year-old Uxbridge facility, which serves about 2,100  connections, or half the town, would be $30 million.

“Based on testing  and the sampling we conduct now, there's no indication that there is a problem,” he said. “How can we say we're contributing to the overall degradation of the  Blackstone?”
December 02. 2012 4:14AM

Clean Water Act needs fine-tuning, critics  say

Image removed by sender. Picture
The       Blackstone River passes under Route 20 in Worcester. (T&G Staff/RICK       CINCLAIR)
Before the U.S. Environmental Protection  Agency issued its first wastewater discharge permit, there was the Clean Water  Act.

Before the Clean Water Act, despite a federal water pollution law,  Ohio's Cuyahoga River burned, waterways were treated as industrial dumping  grounds, wetlands were filled in and beaches were closed because of  contamination.

The Clean Water Act was enacted on Oct. 18, 1972, with  strong bipartisan support.

The act set a new national goal “to restore  and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's  waterways,” according to the EPA. Interim goals were set to make all waters  fishable and swimmable.

The regulatory issues surrounding the Upper  Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District's 2008 EPA permit dispute stem  from the Clean Water Act.

“Looking back, you have to agree the Clean  Water Act has been one of the most successful environmental laws passed by  Congress,” said Ken Kirk, executive director of the National Association of  Clean Water Agencies, which represents municipal sewage agencies and water  treatment managers.

“We're certainly not in favor of rolling back  requirements … but there are provisions in the law requiring folks around the  country to spend money on things that aren't going to give you the bang for the  buck that you need.”

Mr. Kirk said the law needs some fine-tuning to  adapt to 21st century needs.

All dischargers, like the Upper Blackstone  facility, must receive a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit  from the EPA or its designated state authority to discharge into waterways.  Massachusetts is one of only four states in which the EPA, rather than a state  agency, issues the permits.

Other provisions of the act protect wetlands  and coastal waters, and oversee regional aquatic ecosystem restoration projects.  In 1987, the act was revised to develop programs to reduce pollution from  unregulated sources such as stormwater and agriculture, called nonpoint source  pollution.

However, the burden of enforcement through discharge permits  still rests with wastewater treatment facilities.

“One of the major  shortcomings of the law is that it doesn't address runoff from nonpoint  sources,” Mr. Kirk said. “The agriculture community has been given a 'bye.' ”

Money is a problem.

When the Clean Water Act was passed, it  included construction grants to help municipalities build wastewater treatment  facilities that would meet the new regulatory standards. Up to 75 percent of a  treatment facility's capital costs could be paid for through these initial  grants.

Federal money started phasing out after 1987, although matching  funds are available to states to provide low-interest  loans.

“Affordability is a huge issue,” Mr. Kirk said. “People don't seem  to understand that communities, like everyone else, have a budget. They're  between a rock and a hard place.”

The NACWA has worked to introduce  legislation that would bring in more flexibility and affordability in discharge  permits.

Environmental advocacy groups are against opening up the Clean  Water Act to amendments that might weaken it.

Information on the  Earthjustice website says that over the last two years, Congress has taken  approximately three-dozen votes to weaken or block Clean Water Act  protections.

Earthjustice Legislative Counsel Joan Mulhern said, “There  have been efforts to shred the Clean Water Act,” both through legislation and  policy action by the previous administration.

One example, according to  Jon Devine, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, is the  Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act, which passed the House and was  introduced in the Senate. The bill would curtail EPA's authority to update  water-quality standards and set numeric limits on pollutants, including  phosphorus and nitrogen, an issue at the heart of the Upper Blackstone  battle.

“It's a constant battle over funding,” Mr. Devine added. There  have been attempts through budget appropriation riders to cut the EPA's efforts  to clean up waterways in Florida and the Chesapeake Bay.

But Ms. Mulhern  said that despite the upfront investment to improve water treatment, “There's a  cost that's usually much higher for not doing so,” including threats to public  health and economic losses to tourism and fisheries.

“We were supposed to  eliminate discharges of pollutants into the nation's waterways by 1985,” Ms.  Mulhern said, referring to what National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System  stands for. Over the years, she said, the emphasis has shifted from eliminating  to permitting pollutant discharges.
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