OARS Joins River Groups to Sue EPA

OARS has joined nine other river groups in filing a lawsuit to overturn the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s one-year delay in implementing new water pollution requirements in the Commonwealth.

Lead plaintiff Mass Rivers Alliance, OARS, and watershed groups from across the state, representing the Connecticut, Mystic, Taunton, Merrimack, Ipswich, North and South, Jones, and Neponset Rivers, filed suit against the EPA and its Administrator, Scott Pruitt, on September 22, 2017 in Boston’s federal district court. The co-plaintiffs are represented by Kevin Cassidy of Earthrise Law Center and Access to Justice Fellow Irene C. Freidel.

OARS is taking this action because, among other reasons, we believe the new requirement to carefully track illicit discharges and connections that put polluted water directly into our rivers is essential. How can our rivers become fishable and swimmable without fixing this problem?

What are the new water pollution requirements?
Known as “MS4”, for small “municipal separate storm sewer systems,” a state-wide permit regulates pollution from stormwater. The goal of the permit, issued under the Clean Water Act, is to reduce pollution by stormwater. Stormwater, which runs off land, roads and buildings when it rains, carries fertilizer pollution, harmful bacteria, oil, gas, toxic metals, and salt into nearby waterways. Stormwater runoff is the state’s number one source of pollution for lakes, streams and rivers.

Issued jointly by the EPA and MassDEP, the permit covers 260 entities in Massachusetts, including municipalities and federal and state facilities. It requires towns to create a stormwater management plan and directs them to map their stormwater collection systems, monitor outfall pipes, and prioritize cleanup of the most pressing problems, such as the discharge of untreated sewage into nearby waterways via storm drains. The permit also requires public outreach, stormwater recharge, and “good housekeeping” practices such as storm drain cleaning and street sweeping.

Mass Rivers Executive Director Julia Blatt emphasizes that “this permit is a product of extensive public input as well as eight long years of negotiation among the state DEP, the EPA, and many stakeholders. The EPA pulled the rug out from under the state’s pollution control efforts by announcing this delay two days before the effective date.”

Why take legal action?
This permit is long overdue, has had everyone’s input, and there is no basis for not implementing it now. The progress we have seen in our water quality is because the EPA has steadily implemented the Clean Water Act until now. This unilateral and unlawful action by the current EPA is an about-face in that process.

The watershed groups are concerned that EPA’s delay of the MS4 permit is part of a pattern of actions being taken by the Trump administration to weaken environmental protections across the country. The permit could be delayed much longer than one year. “The EPA has asked for this delay while permit appeals are being decided,” said Andrew Fisk, Executive Director of the Connecticut River Conservancy, “but then in the same breath also asked the court to delay judicial review of the appeals. It is clear to us that EPA is looking at every maneuver they can find to stop doing the right thing for the public’s water. We think their legal case is fundamentally flawed and look forward to making our case.”

Views from around the State

• “The communities in our watershed have been preparing for several years to comply with the new permit,” said Samantha Woods of the Norwell-based North and South Rivers Watershed Association. “People want cleaner rivers and beaches, and we’ve been working with our towns on public outreach materials to help them. This delay has created confusion.”

• “The Mystic River Watershed Association believes that the stay of the MS4 permit was a gross over-reach by an administration that has set out to systematically undermine protections to the environment,” said Patrick Herron, Executive Director of the Mystic River Watershed Association. “This permit was eight years in the making and long overdue. Further delay of the permit does not make any sense. We need this permit in the Mystic – for a healthy environment and safe recreation.”

• “EPA has identified polluted stormwater runoff as the number one water quality challenge facing the Merrimack River and its watershed in the coming decades,” noted Rusty Russell, Executive Director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council in Lawrence. “Now, it seems, they’re fleeing their own findings, while local communities, many of which have been preparing to implement the new MS4 program, are left wondering whether the river will ever be fully fishable and swimmable.”

• Wayne Castonguay, Executive Director, Ipswich River Watershed Association: “Watershed Associations across the state have been working with their municipal and regional partners for many years to help our cities and towns comply with the new permit and minimize its burden. It was a real partnership and most everyone was on board and ready to go. It’s a shame that this decision needlessly eliminates the opportunity to finally make significant progress on the number one source of water pollution in our state.”

• “The most effective time to implement stormwater controls is during new construction or redevelopment of existing development, both covered by much more up-to-date requirements in the new permit,” said Stephen Silva, Secretary of the Taunton River Watershed Alliance. “Each month the MS4 permit is delayed, numerous projects are being constructed with outdated stormwater controls adversely affecting our environment both now and in the future.”

• “We have been working very closely with communities across the Neponset River watershed to get them ready for the common-sense requirements in this new permit, and most of our communities are more than ready to get started” said Ian Cooke, Executive Director of the Neponset River Watershed Association. “Blocking the permit two days before it takes effect is a flagrant violation of EPA’s own rules, and undermines the efforts of our communities to eliminate water pollution problems so that their residents can safely enjoy their backyard streams and ponds.”

• Pine duBois of the Jones River Watershed Association in Southeastern Mass. observed that: "Like all environmental protections, the MS4 permit is fundamental education for a growing population that uses limited natural resources for our entire economy. The permit is intended to overcome poor practices in the past of dumping waste into the environment that, due to sheer volume, is damaging our well-being now. Having dirty rivers and filthy bays is not in the public interest. We all must pull together and clean up our practices or suffer growing consequences. Some communities, like Kingston, take this mandate seriously, I hope everyone will get over their biases and improve common resources for the common good. This is what EPA is supposed to do, not fall to the lowest common denominator.”

If you have questions and would like to learn more contact Alison Field-Juma at 978-369-3956 or email.