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State to take over Cape water program

Change expected to help with complex requirements facing towns

By Doug Fraser  |  Original Source

{This pipe, shown in 2009, was connected to a stormwater basin that drained 12 acres of land into a 46 acre shellfish area in Hyannis Inner Harbor, causing high bacteria counts. Massachusetts officials are planning to take over the permitting for discharges of pollutants to surface water bodies like this from the federal government. Cape Cod Times file}

Gov. Charlie Baker will file legislation today on Beacon Hill requesting the state take over administration and enforcement of a portion of the Clean Water Act from the federal government, a move that could ease complicated permitting for stormwater discharge on the Cape, according to local officials.

Massachusetts is one of just four states still reliant on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue permits for the discharge of pollutants to surface water bodies like ponds, streams and coastal bays. Known as National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, they govern everything from wastewater treatment plants like Deer Island in Boston Harbor to stormwater drains running along town streets, if the discharged water is carried by a pipe, ditch or channel into a surface water body.

State officials say the change will benefit towns by providing increased technical assistance in developing cost-effective solutions to pollution problems targeted to specific areas. This is especially needed as towns respond to the recent push by the federal government, and environmental organizations, for compliance with the Clean Water Act. On Cape Cod, the cost of cleaning up bays and ponds polluted with nutrients primarily discharged by septic systems is estimated to be billions of dollars. Lawsuits and the cost have prompted action on a regional basis to address the problem.

“We just think this is a really good time, and a good opportunity, for us to take on this program,” said Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Suuberg compared the transition to his agency’s role in administering other federal environmental programs like the Clean Air Act, Title 5 for septic systems, wetlands and drinking water statutes, and hazardous waste clean-up. If the legislation is approved and the EPA agrees to turn over the discharge permit program to DEP, Suuberg said his department would add personnel for scientific, monitoring and enforcement roles, as well as engage the academic community. He praised the Baker administration for deciding to fund the $4.7 million needed to run the program through a line item in the budget, and not through user fees.

The DEP currently handles permits of discharges to groundwater, like septic systems and the Cape’s wastewater treatment and septic-waste treatment plants.

Cape Cod Commission Watershed Management Director Tom Cambareri said the Cape only has a handful of NEPDES permitted sites that discharge directly to water, including Aquaculture Research Corp. in Dennis and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. But a majority of the Cape, from Bourne to Eastham, falls under new EPA stormwater regulations, unveiled earlier this month, that require NEPDES permits.

Towns must comply with the new stormwater regulations, known as MS4, which target the impact of road and stormwater runoff that can deliver nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, feeding algal blooms, as well as pollutants like automotive oil and gasoline into water bodies.

“This is a significant monetary increase to our town budget to comply (with these new federal stormwater requirements,)” said Barnstable Department of Public Works Director Daniel Santos. Towns are now being asked to survey their stormwater systems and identify those that discharge into water bodies or swales — low, typically wet land. Towns will be required to do water sampling, develop spill prevention plans, engage in public outreach and training, and face increased maintenance requirements, like more frequent street sweeping.

“We’re going to have to hire a consultant to figure it out,” Santos said.

Cambareri said that the DEP has suffered through personnel cuts in recent years, and adding more personnel through this program could bolster the agency's ability to provide the technical assistance needed to help municipalities with the new requirements.

Santos and Cambareri agreed with Suuberg that there are benefits to the state taking over the discharge permit program, because the agency has local representatives on the Cape who understand towns needs. The commission recommended the change in its Clean Water Act Section 208 plan, an updated regional water quality management plan for the Cape.

“Chances are that with the Southeast region (of DEP), they have a better, more localized, handle on things,” Cambareri said. “They are up-to-date on what we are trying to do.

— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct

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