Towns may get delay on river fix

EPA cites high cost for phosphorus cleanup

By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2011

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The next step in cleaning up the water flowing in the Charles River appears to be so costly that federal regulators are considering more than doubling the length of time given the test communities of Milford, Franklin, and Bellingham to reduce the amount of phosphorus pouring into the river from their shores.

A 165-page draft report looking at the financial effect of new federal storm-water regulations being tested in the three communities near the Charles River’s headwaters - but destined for the entire watershed - pegs the cost of compliance at $180 million.

And that is only for Franklin, Bellingham, and Milford, not the other 32 towns through which the Charles meanders on its way to Boston. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, no cost estimate yet exists for all 35 communities within the watershed to comply with the new regulations.

“It would be billions of dollars,’’ said Franklin Town Administrator Jeffrey D. Nutting. “If we are just three little towns, what will Boston, Cambridge, and all the towns right up the river cost? There has to be a better way.’’

Ken Moraff, deputy director for ecosystem protection for the Environmental Protection Agency in Boston, said the considerable expense of compliance has the agency reconsidering how quickly the towns should be expected to fall in line.

“The estimate of $180 million is for the three towns. That is a lot. It is clearly a major investment,’’ Moraff said. “The real key is to make sure the work is done over an appropriate schedule to make the work doable. There is a major difference between doing it in 10 years versus over 20 or 25 years.’’

Original guidelines issued more than a year ago gave the pilot towns up to 10 years to meet phosphorus reduction goals, primarily by setting up storm-water treatment systems. The draft report released last week suggests stretching compliance out to 25 years and, while still pushing for the establishment of local or regional storm-water programs, encourages common-sense solutions such as more frequent street sweeping, and eliminating the use of fertilizers that contain phosphorus.

A final report will be issued after the towns and other stakeholders weigh in at a meeting this month, Moraff said.

The EPA funded the $300,000 study by the Horsley Witten Group after the three towns complained they were being unfairly saddled with implementing costly new storm-water containment systems without any federal funding or time to come up with alternatives.

Franklin already requires new developments to retain runoff on site, and has been installing rain gardens of plants to collect storm runoff rather than allow it to flow into sewers and the Charles, Nutting said. Retaining water in the local water table can only help Franklin, which draws its drinking water from 10 wells, he said, but the costs associated with the new requirements add yet another burden to a town that already has been forced to reduce its municipal payroll from 303 people to 235.

Bellingham’s strained budget provides for street sweeping once a year, and cleaning out catch basins only when absolutely necessary. Department of Public Works director Donald DiMartino said he is uncertain what more his town will be able to afford to cut down on phosphorus entering the river.

“I am a public works guy and love to build projects, but doing what they are proposing is so costly, it is scary,’’ DiMartino said. “I don’t really know what town can afford this.’’

The Charles River runs 80 miles from Echo Lake in Hopkinton to the Atlantic Ocean in Boston, and drains 308 square miles of watershed covering 35 cities and towns.

While the river today is much cleaner than it was even a decade ago, thanks to the elimination of most combined sewer overflows and the building of water treatment plants mandated under the Clean Water Act, phosphorus from storm-water runoff remains a major pollutant, said Kate Bostich, with the Charles River Watershed Association. The phosphorus comes from fuels, fertilizer, and other everyday items that end up on roads and parking lots, from where it gets washed into the river.

Bostich, whose group has been working closely with Franklin and Bellingham officials to come up with ways to meet the new requirements, said putting off phosphorus reductions would only slow the momentum already made in cleaning up the Charles River.

“If we don’t get there for another 10 years, it will be just 10 more years of pollution,’’ she said. “We aren’t going to lose the gains we have made.’’

Phosphorus runoff has been blamed for toxic blooms of blue-green algae and the explosive growth of plants such as purple loosestrife, water lilies, and water chestnuts that choke off the waterway in some places.

The EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have established a maximum daily load of phosphorus that the Charles can safely absorb, but that level is less than half what currently washes into the river. The EPA set phosphorus reduction targets for all the watershed’s communities but singled out Milford (57 percent reduction), Bellingham (51.8 percent), and Franklin (52.1 percent) to begin with because they sit near the head of the Charles, and are where phosphorus first filters into the river, Moraff said.

“When it comes into Milford, the water is very clean,’’ Moraff said. “The phosphorus starts causing problems in those three towns, stimulating algae and plant growth, and as the plants decompose they release more phosphorus, which continues the cycle going down the river.

“If you can reduce phosphorus upstream, you can have an impact downstream,’’ he said.

At issue are two permits to be issued by the EPA to regulate the storm-water discharge. One applies to the municipalities, and the second extends the EPA’s regulatory authority to private properties with more than 2 acres of impervious pavement and/or or rooftops in the three towns. Moraff said the latter permit is meant to help remove some of the burden from towns by holding businesses responsible for reducing their own runoff.

However at a meeting last week in Milford, officials from all three communities joined state Senator Richard Moore, a Democrat from Uxbridge, and Representative John Fernandes, a Milford Democrat, in urging the Massachusetts congressional delegation to pressure the EPA to put off implementing the rules that they argue may drive some businesses out of town.

Bellingham Town Administrator Dennis Fraine cited a business owner who told him that if he has to pay the estimated $600,000 to make his older strip mall comply with the new water runoff regulations, he would consider walking away from the business altogether.

“Either they come up with the money or they back off,’’ Moore said. “We are doing this for posterity but we aren’t going to have any posterity around here without any money to do this.’’

Milford Selectman Brian Murray said the towns should consider suing the EPA to halt the new regulations altogether, but his town’s lawyer, Gerald Moody, said a lawsuit would be premature. Moody also said legal action against the EPA would be too costly for any single town, and suggested Milford, Bellingham, and Franklin gauge the interest of other communities along the Charles in joining any challenge.

“If each community put up $20,000, which we can afford, that would be $700,000 and that is a nice retainer for some large and powerful Washington, D.C., law firm to work with us. Or better yet, double that to $40,000 apiece and now we really have something to work with,’’ Moody said.

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