Proposed Sewer Rule Change Violates Clean Water Act

Chemicals and Sewer Treatment Plants Don’t Always Mix

Here in the Neponset River Watershed, we sometimes have problems with untreated sewage getting into the river. However, since there are no publicly-owned sewer treatment plants that discharge to the Neponset, we don’t often hear about problems with discharges of sewer treatment plant effluent. But, across the state, many rivers and coastal waters are burdened with pollution from sewer treatment plant effluent that is not as clean as it should be.

One reason for this is that oftentimes chemicals get discharged into sewer collection systems and delivered to sewer treatment plants which never were set-up to remove those chemicals. The result is that the chemicals pass through the treatment plant and end up in our rivers and coastal waters. For just this reason, state law long has required the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to issue sewer discharge permits to certain industries that want to discharge to the sewer.

Proposed Elimination of Sewer Discharge Permits Raises Concerns

As part of its recent “permit streamlining” proposal, the MassDEP has proposed the repeal of ALL state-permitting for sewer users. This includes permitting of the heaviest, dirtiest industries, no matter how toxic their wastewater may be or how ill-prepared local authorities are to regulate them.

In a letter to the Secretary of Environmental Affairs, asking for his review of the proposal, four environmental organizations, including the Neponset River Watershed Association, asserted that this proposed rule change would violate not only the Massachusetts Clean Water Act, but also the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act, and the commitment by MassDEP’s Commissioner that his “regulatory reform” proposals would not lower “MassDEP’s high standards of environmental protection.”

MassDEP’s Rationale for Its Proposal

MassDEP claims that state sewer permitting is redundant with local sewer permitting by treatment plant operators and provides no additional protection. Therefore, repeal of state permitting will not result in environmental harm.

Why It Ain’t So

Some larger sewer authorities, such as the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, operate sophisticated and effective programs to work with industries discharging to their collection systems to ensure that nothing will be discharged to their sewers that might cause a problem at the treatment plant or in the environment downstream.

However, many, if not most, local sewer permitting authorities lack the manpower and the technical expertise to set and enforce discharge limits on wastewater coming from complicated industrial processes.

Only some treatment plants have sophisticated “industrial pre-treatment programs” certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, and as often as not, local permits are issued by already-overburdened Departments of Public Works and not sewage treatment plants themselves. Without proper limits on industrial discharges to sewer collection systems, toxic substances in the sewers may pass through the treatment plant untreated to flow directly into our rivers and streams.

Who Says?

I worked for MassDEP for seventeen years, and during that time, I had first-hand experience with how ill-equipped the staff of many local sewer permitting authorities are to set appropriate discharge limits on industrial sewer users.

One of my tasks while at MassDEP was to interview every staff person at MassDEP who was doing sewer permitting, many of whom had been working with local sewer permitting authorities for decades. To a person, they were strongly opposed to elimination of state permitting and were highly critical (to say the least) of many local permitting authorities.

The Neponset River Watershed Association’s letter to the Secretary was signed by New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Toxics Action Center, and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). CLF is the only non-profit environmental law firm in Massachusetts. You may remember that CLF was responsible for getting the state to clean up Boston Harbor and for getting MassHighway to treat highway runoff before it reaches our waterways.

Why the Proposal Violates the Massachusetts Clean Water Act

The Massachusetts Clean Water Act requires MassDEP to regulate all sewer dischargers. The MassDEP is authorized to grant “exemptions” from the permitting requirements. But, repealing the entire set of regulations goes well beyond an “exemption” and is clearly illegal.

Why the Proposal Violates the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act (MEPA)

The Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) regulations require an alternatives analysis and public review for any proposed change in environmental regulations that significantly would reduce: standards for environmental protection; opportunities for public participation; or access to information generated during the permitting (or MEPA) process.

MassDEP’s proposal would do all three.

How You Can Help

Remember, repeal of sewer regulations only has been proposed. MassDEP could change the proposal before finalizing it, especially if folks let them know they don’t like it (hint, hint).

The public comment period is open until May 15, and comments can be emailed to

Refer to regulations 314 CMR 7.00.

Questions? Contact NepRWA Executive Director at 781-575-0354 x305 or


April 23, 2013

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