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Watershed Groups Sue EPA Over Permit Delay

Posted on Wednesday, September 27, 2017 by Northshore

  After more than a decade helping develop a new permit to improve water quality all across the state, officials at the Ipswich River Watershed Association were ready to roll up their sleeves and go to work with local cities and towns. But now, instead, they finds themselves part of a lawsuit against environmental regulators. Just days before the new permit was supposed to go into effect in July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was imposing a one-year delay in light of lawsuits that had been filed by several municipalities and organizations, challenging the agency's authority under the Clean Water Act to expand the existing 2003 permit. On Friday, the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance and nine watershed groups from across Massachusetts (including the Ipswich River group and one for the Merrimack River) filed suit in federal district court in Boston asking the court to vacate the EPA's delay. “The EPA pulled the rug out from under the state’s pollution control efforts by announcing this delay two days before the effective date," said Julia Blatt, executive director of Mass Rivers, the lead plaintiff. Wayne Castonguay, the executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, said his group and the 21 cities and towns within the local watershed have been working collaboratively on this permit for more than 10 years and thought it was ready to go. "I think that’s why the Rivers Alliance took the action that they did," Castonguay said. "I think the environmental community was disappointed that the EPA suddenly and without notice, and at the last minute, issued a delay in that permit becoming effective." Storm water is the No. 1 source of pollution affecting rivers and streams in Massachusetts. Pollutants, such as fertilizers, harmful bacteria, oil, gas, toxic metals and salt, all often wash into nearby waterways with runoff from land, roads and buildings without proper controls in place. "A lot of the Ipswich River in particular does not meet the required standards for what they call fishable, swimmable and drinkable since most of the pollution impacting our river is from storm water," Castonguay said. "The permit was intended to finally begin addressing those sources of pollution."  The permit, known as the MS4, for small “municipal separate storm sewer systems,” regulates storm water pollution under the Clean Water Act.  It is issued jointly by the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection, and covers 260 storm sewer systems in the state, including those operated by municipalities as well as by federal and state agencies. The permit requires towns to create a stormwater management plan and directs them to map their storm water collection systems, monitor outfall pipes, and prioritize cleanup of the most pressing problems, including discharge via storm drains of untreated sewage into nearby waterways. The permit also requires public outreach, storm water recharge, and sound local management practices, such as storm drain cleaning and street sweeping. According to Castonguay, the permit will address two categories. The first is pollution prevention, which is largely comprised of public education to reduce sources of pollution that get into storm water. The second involves addressing existing problems, finding where pollutants are coming from and removing them. "We had strong hopes that this new permit would be a game changer in improving the water quality in our river," he said. The MS4 program is already on appeal before the federal circuit court in Washington, D.C. "The goal is simply to get what we've been working on for the last decade back on track and to get the new storm water program up and running," Castonguay said of the new suit.  The river and watershed groups are represented by Kevin Cassidy of Earthrise Law Center and Access to Justice's Irene C. Freidel.

by Mary Markos

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