EPA will hear Gloucester out tonight on treatment plant

By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / March 24, 2011

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With potentially higher water and sewer bills looming, city officials and business leaders are expecting a big turnout for tonight’s Environmental Protection Agency public hearing at 6:30 in City Hall.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk will try to persuade EPA officials to rescind a tentative decision to deny Gloucester’s request to renew its secondary treatment waiver. Without it, Gloucester will be forced to spend $60 million on a secondary treatment plant, which will double residents’ already high water and sewer rates.

“I think it’s going to be difficult getting to the microphone,’’ said Bob Hastings, executive director of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.

“People in the neighborhoods are going to be frantic. If this goes through, it will make life extremely difficult for families in this town.’’

Gloucester is one of 16 municipalities in New England that has been granted a modification (or waiver) of secondary treatment requirements under section 301(h) of the Clean Water Act. It has received the waiver since 1985 (renewed every five years), but was tentatively denied late last year.

According to the EPA’s “tentative decision document,’’ the city had failed to prove that discharge would not negatively impact recreational activities or interfere with protection of aquatic habitat.

City officials contend that water coming from Gloucester’s primary wastewater treatment facility — currently in the second phase of a two-phase, $20 million upgrade — already meets federal standards.

“What we have is 20 years of data showing that the primary treatment plant provides the same degree of clean water as secondary treatment would,’’ said Suzanne Egan, the city’s general counsel. She said that while EPA regulations have changed, the field testing indicates that the city meets those standards.

Kirk has had the Rotary Club of Gloucester and Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce send out notices to their members.

“Our concern is for our member businesses and their employees,’’ said Hastings, who noted that Gloucester already pays twice the state average on water and sewer bills. The Massachusetts single-family average is $584 annually, he said, while Gloucester’s single-family average is $1,250.

As for the science, Hastings is putting his faith in the city’s engineers.

“We don’t want to be party to polluting the ocean, but the outfall is a mile out and 90 feet down, and we’re told it’s meeting every requirement,’’ he said.

A statement from an ad hoc committee appointed by the mayor called Watch{-2}0 argues that the EPA-mandated field testing supports its contention that the current facility is adequate.

Written comments will be accepted through March 31. A final decision is expected following the comment period.