US court upholds EPA order; City officials fear higher sewer rates.
WORCESTER - A federal appeals court has upheld implementation of long-delayed more stringent limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution discharges from the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District sewage treatment plant in Millbury.
The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals has lifted a stay of enforcement that had been in place since April 2011, after court-sponsored mediation efforts between the Upper Blackstone District and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to break the impasse between two parties over the new pollution limits.
The 56-page decision, hailed by environmental advocates as an important step to restoring clean water to the Blackstone River, could lead to much higher sewer rates for local water users, according to city officials.
They have pegged the cost of compliance with the new permit for the Upper Blackstone plant at $200 million - on top of the $180 million already spent on upgrading the plant. In addition, the annual operational costs of the plant would increase by $5 million.
All of which could translate into an additional $225 in sewer fees annually for the average city water user, according to city officials.
Worcester is one of several communities that send sewage to the Upper Blackstone plant. Based on its flow volume to the plant, the city pays about 85 percent of the plant costs.
Other members of the district include Auburn, Cherry Valley Sewer District, Holden, Millbury, Rutland and West Boylston. The plant also serves portions of Oxford, Paxton, Shrewsbury and Sutton.
"We are reviewing the decision and all options available to us at this juncture," City Manager Michael V. O'Brien said last night. "We stand firm that the EPA's science and projected Blackstone River models are hopelessly flawed. We have proven this with our unbiased science."
But in lifting the stay of enforcement, the three-judge panel said the EPA's decision to set those new discharge limits for the treatment plant was supported by scientific record and was not premature.
It also said cost considerations for meeting the new discharge limits may not be considered by the EPA in the setting of permit limits to assure compliance with state water quality standards.
"The (Upper Blackstone) District, supported by its members towns, has an interest in avoiding compliance costs associated with the permit and has challenged the effluent limitations as premature and unsupported by scientific fact," wrote Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch. "We have stayed enforcement of the permit during this appeal and while the parties were involved in settlement negotiations in a court-sponsored settlement program.
"We now lift the stay, deny the petitions, and find no error in the EPA's final permit decision," the judge added. "The District's responsibility for serious pollution problems in the important waterways of two states is clear, and its challenge to the 2008 permit has no merit. We trust that the District, as well as the EPA, will now act with expedition to address these problems."
The Conservation Law Foundation, which joined the EPA in opposing the Upper Blackstone's efforts to further delay the new requirements, said it was encouraged that the appeals court rejected the "delay tactics" employed by the district, whose discharge it claims represents about 70 percent of the total municipal waste flowing into the Blackstone River.
"Restoring clean water in the Blackstone River and Narragansett Bay is essential to the quality of life, ecological integrity, and economic prosperity of the community that share these invaluable waters on both side of the border," said Tricia K. Jedele, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation, Rhode Island. "Those that pollute these waters must take responsibility by making investments in needed clean water technology before it's too late to recover the river and the bay."
Meanwhile, Anthony Iarrapino, clean water program attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said the decision reinforces the urgency of confronting pollution in critical waterways.
"The decision lends strong support to the EPA's overall approach to cleaning up other degraded New England waters where the science clearly shows stricter limits are required to avoid worsening water quality," Mr. Iarrapino said.
The EPA contends the Blackstone River is one of the most polluted in the state, mainly because of too much phosphorus, a nutrient that fuels excessive plant growth. The agency says Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island is stressed by declining oxygen, leading to fish kills, because there is too much nitrogen in the water.
In 1998, the EPA issued a permit for the treatment plant that imposed new limits on the discharge of phosphorus and nitrogen. In 2001, the Upper Blackstone district embarked on a $180 million upgrade to the treatment plant so it could meet the new discharge limits.
Before that work could be completed, however, the EPA issued a new permit for the plant in 2008 that imposed further, more stringent limits on nutrients. But city officials contended that permit was not based on sound science and would do little to improve water quality.
Mr. O'Brien said the new permit expectation will force the city to invest "hundreds and hundreds of millions of ratepayer dollars for negligible results" for the Blackstone River and water quality.
"Ratepayers will pay double and triple what they pay now," the manager said. "The question is, to what end?"