New Discharge Permit Will Better Protect Upper Blackstone River

An updated wastewater discharge permit for the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District will address severe water quality impairments in the Blackstone River and in Narragansett Bay. The new, tighter limits for phosphorus and nitrogen are contained in a final National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit developed by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to an Aug. 22 press release.

The Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District (UBWPAD) is the largest municipal wastewater plant discharging to the Blackstone River. It is the largest single source of phosphorus to the river and one of the largest sources of nitrogen to Narragansett Bay.

Excessive loadings of nutrients stimulate the growth of aquatic plants and algae in downstream waterbodies. The abundance of aquatic plants and algae deplete dissolved oxygen levels and impair the physical habitat of these waterbodies. Phosphorus is the primary nutrient of concern in fresh waters, like the Blackstone River, while nitrogen is the primary nutrient of concern in salt waters such as Narragansett Bay.

The Blackstone River is one of the most impaired rivers in Massachusetts as a result of excessive discharges of phosphorus. Problems include severe degradation of the natural habitat as a result of excessive aquatic plant growth. Narragansett Bay, an important New England fishery and recreational resource, also suffers from excess nutrients. Large discharges of nitrogen have resulted in dramatic declines in dissolved oxygen levels and significant fish kills are becoming regular occurrences. Only a small fraction of the historic eelgrass habitat remains.

UBWPAD is not the only municipal plant contributing to the excessive nutrient loadings in the Blackstone River and Narragansett Bay. Final permits with nutrient limits have been issued to several Rhode Island facilities as well as to three other Massachusetts wastewater discharge facilities that discharge to the Blackstone River and/or Narragansett Bay. EPA is working closely with officials in both states to address these discharges in a coordinated fashion. This approach will best enable EPA and the states to make sure the treatment is working and to ensure that everyone is doing their fair share to address the pollution problems.

While the additional treatment technology required will result in a further increase in the sewer use fee, the total monthly sewer fee after achieving the proposed limits will still be lower than the statewide average and lower than rates in many communities with comparable median household incomes. Even with the recent increases in construction and energy costs, the sewer fee increase for the typical household in the sewer district is expected to be $10 per month or less.

EPA will work with the UBWPAD to develop a reasonable schedule for meeting the new limits that takes into account ongoing upgrades at the facility as well as the schedules established for other facilities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts so that all necessary nutrient reductions are completed at approximately the same time. EPA will continue to work with Massachusetts and the communities served by the UBWPAD to minimize the financial implications while moving as expeditiously as possible to address the severe ecological impacts.

EPA issued the draft permit for UBWPAD On March 23, 2007. The agency received comments from more than 30 parties, including UBWPAD, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and several public interest groups. In light of the substantial public interest in the permit, EPA also held a public hearing on May 9, 2007. EPA has responded to all of the comments received and has made several revisions to the draft permit as a result of the comments.

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