Nov 18, 2008

EPA Tackles Storm Water Pollution in Charles River

Facilities with two or more acres of impervious area must operate under a Clean Water Act permit

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking strong action to enact the next generation of environmental protection for the Charles River by tackling pollution problems caused by storm water.

Specifically, the EPA announced a targeted effort to apply more stringent controls on storm water pollution in the Charles River watershed, where storm water containing high levels of phosphorus is a chief culprit in dramatic algae blooms—including toxic cyanobacteria—that have plagued the river in recent years.

The EPA action will require certain industrial, commercial and residential facilities in the Towns of Milford, Franklin and Bellingham with two or more acres of impervious area (parking lots, roofs, roadways, etc.) to operate under a Clean Water Act permit. EPA is accepting public comments on this action.

“Polluted storm water runoff causes serious water quality problems, and is the next great challenge for cleaning the Charles River,” said Robert Varney, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office. “By working closely with Massachusetts and our other partners, we will make great environmental improvements, while at the same time providing facilities with flexibility and time to meet the new standards. Working together cooperatively, we can solve these problems.”

“Many of our state’s waters are severely degraded as a result of storm water pollution,” said Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles. “Now is the time to take action to reduce pollution and return more water to the ground, where it will be cleaned naturally and added to our water supplies.”

In a separate but closely related action, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is enacting a statewide requirement for facilities with five or more acres of impervious area to reduce storm water runoff. Under both the federal and state actions, new requirements will be phased in to reduce polluted storm water runoff at sites with large paved areas, including shopping malls and industrial areas. While the statewide standard will be five acres, the state is proposing to match EPA’s two-acre requirement in the Charles, where a higher level of control is needed to address chronic water quality problems.

“Until now, managing storm water has largely been the responsibility of the cities and towns,” said Laurie Burt, commissioner of the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection. “It is critical now for other property owners to step up to the plate and do their part. This new program creates a level playing field by requiring that the responsibility for managing storm water be shared by municipalities and private property owners.”

The new EPA requirements are being piloted in the three communities at the upstream end of the Charles—Milford, Franklin, and Bellingham—for commercial, industrial and high-density residential facilities with two or more acres of impervious area. EPA will require these facilities to apply for a Clean Water Act permit for storm water discharges that eventually reach the Charles River. The permits will require that these facilities reduce phosphorus discharges by 65% through a variety of storm water management practices. Ultimately, these requirements will likely apply to the entire Charles River watershed.

High levels of nutrients—especially phosphorus—have in the past several years have caused the Charles River and other water bodies to turn a bright shade of blue-green during summertime algae blooms. The color is caused by blooms of cyanobacteria, which can be harmful to both people and pets.

“EPA’s extension of the Clean Water Act to include polluted storm water runoff from commercial and industrial parking lots is both bold and necessary. We will never clean up urban rivers without cleaning up existing runoff from pavement. This bold move will aid cities and towns meet their requirements, and help restore a more natural balance to the way water works in metropolitan regions, not just in the Charles River, but ultimately across the United States,” said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

"It is time for existing commercial and industrial developments to do their fair share to clean up the storm water pollution that is threatening public health and recreation in New England's waters," said Christopher Kilian, director of the Conservation Law Foundation's Clean Water and Healthy Forests Program. "The EPA took this precedent-setting action because the Clean Water Act's mandates don't allow this pollution to go unaddressed."

In October 2007, EPA and the state began a process to limit phosphorus entering the Charles River by establishing a new “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) for discharges of phosphorus into the lower Charles River. These more stringent controls are the next phase of acting on the TMDL.