On January 12, 2012 the U. S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, held a hearing concerning the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District’s (UBWPAD) permit appeal. In that hearing, the Court stated in no uncertain terms that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) must consider recent scientific information concerning the UBWPAD effluent and the impact of its discharge and other sources on water quality in the River and the Bay. The Court referred the case to its mediation process, and strongly recommended that the parties work out their differences and work together to determine how the new information should be considered in revising the District’s permit. The parties and the mediator are required to report back to the Court by March 30, 2012.
Unfortunately, other parties seem to have a different goal. On January 19, 2012, just seven days after the Court hearing, Mr. Peter F. Kilmartin, the Rhode Island Attorney General (RIAG) sent letters to his state’s Congressional delegation, urging them to encourage EPA to remain inflexible on permit conditions that the Court has urged it to mediate in an open-minded fashion. This demand borders on asking the state’s delegation to encourage EPA to violate the Court’s specific direction. The RIAG letter is packed with inaccuracies, misstatements and falsehoods, and it places the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts at odds with one another on critical environmental issues, when no such dispute is necessary. He also issued the attached Press Release. The RIAG went so far as to declare Mass DEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell “anti-environment” for his stance on the matter. As you may recall, Commissioner Kimmell wrote to the EPA Region 1 Administrator last summer urging the agency to amend the District’s permit so that the most recent science and discharge quality could be used to better inform permit limits. His courageous letter was nothing more than a call for common sense and surety by EPA that it has the right limits before it imposes a $200 million cost on ratepayers. Since when is it “anti-environment” to use public funds prudently? In his year at the helm of MassDEP, Commissioner Kimmell, under difficult economic times for his agency and the regulated community, has proven himself to be a stellar and pragmatic environmentalist. He should not be scorned by the RIAG and zealots among the environmental community simply because he believes that vast
expenditures of public monies need to be based on science that has a higher degree of certainty than that currently employed by EPA. Rather, he should be applauded for advancing the notion that environmental improvements come at a cost to ratepayers and that it is the obligation of environmental agencies to assure that public funds are used wisely to achieve maximum environmental benefits.
The RIAG was also out of line in grossly distorting the facts of this case. His main point was that wastewater treatment plants in Rhode Island were all committed, through NPDES permit limits, to achieving low levels of nitrogen discharge to Narragansett Bay while the UBWPAD refused to accept such permit terms and instead was held to outdated demands from its 2001 permit. What he failed to mention was that, with the exception of the tiny East Greenwich Plant, none of the RI wastewater plants was able to meet the nitrogen discharge levels achieved by UBWPAD in the summer of 2011. While they may have permits with low nitrogen limits and are moving toward compliance over a course of years, the UBWPAD is already achieving these levels and this past summer its RI counterparts were discharging 50% to 400% more nitrogen.
While the RIAG was expressing outrage over what his misinformation told him was an unfair bias that allows UBWPAD to go about its merry way while RI wastewater plants and their ratepayers step up to do “the right thing”, one might wonder where Mr. Kilmartin was when RIDEM doled out highly restrictive permit limits to these Rhode Island plants and communities? In Rhode Island, RIDEM (Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management) holds primacy on NPOES permits. It is RIDEM that issues permits, not EPA. It was RIDEM that came up with the strict limits on nitrogen that
these plants must achieve. RIDEM used the same science as EPA to construct its permit limits. Was the RIAG indignant when these permits were issued to Rhode Island communities or did he just let those ratepayers suffer at the hands of dubious science and environmental zealotry?
The Blackstone River and Narragansett Bay have been in a state of remarkable and continuous recovery since the 1970’s. Wastewater treatment plants and communities in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island continue to take steps that will lead to further improvement of these valuable water resources. A brief delay while court-ordered mediation explores whether the latest and best available science might better inform permit limits will not cause water quality in the river and bay to suddenly plummet to 1930’s levels.
Government at all levels has an obligation to assure that limited public funds are used wisely. That is especially true when those funds come from ratepayers with no aid from federal or state “partners”. Making sure EPA has it right before they pull the trigger on a $200 million hit on Worcester ratepayers is hardly an outrageous request.