US joins suit against city sewer commission; Focus on runoff to rivers, harbor


by Stephanie Ebbert, Boston Globe

The federal government joined a lawsuit yesterday against the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, alleging that the city agency is violating the Clean Water Act by failing to stop raw sewage and pollutants from flowing into rivers and streams and ultimately into the cleaned-up Boston Harbor.

The suit, originally filed by the Conservation Law Foundation in US District Court in February, seeks to compel the to stop the alleged violations and devote resources to finding illegal sewer hookups and reducing pollution. The US Department of Justice joined the suit on behalf of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

“For many years, EPA and others have made major investments in improving water quality in the urban waters in and near Boston,’’ said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office. “Ensuring that we take steps to stop the daily discharge of sewage and other pollutants to these water bodies is critically important for protecting the health of our people and our environment.’’

The Conservation Law Foundation led the federal lawsuit in 1983 that paved the way for the massive, federally mandated cleanup of Boston Harbor. The latest lawsuit and the US government’s decision to join it suggest that water quality improvement remains a work in progress.

A spokesman for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission would not address the details of the complaint.

“While we have no comment on the specifics, the commission takes its role as an environmental steward as seriously as any other and is proud of its contributions to the resurgence of Boston Harbor and the waterfront,’’ Thomas R. Bagley, the agency’s deputy director of communications, said in a statement. “The commission’s commitment to a better environment has been consistently demonstrated in its aggressive capital improvement program, which commits significant resources to system improvements.’’

With the major work of the harbor cleanup complete and with a dramatic improvement in water quality, attention is turning to smaller but cumulative sources of pollution in waterways. Environmentalists, both locally and nationally, once focused on problems as vivid as raw sewage oozing from pipes. Now, they are trying to stop oil and antifreeze in runoff from roadways, toxins in storm-water systems, and animal droppings on riverbanks, all of which wash into waterways during rainstorms and diminish the gains from prior cleanup operations.

“The federal government’s entry into this case is a clear indication of the urgency of the matter and the priority EPA places on it,’’ said Christopher Kilian, director of clean water and healthy forests for theConservation Law Foundtion. The Boston Water and Sewer Commission’s “inability to maintain a system that ensures clean water is a violation of the law and an affront to the people of Boston,’’ Killan said.

The suit alleges that raw sewage and pollutants are being discharged into rivers including the Mystic, Charles, and Neponset, which flow into Boston Harbor. Some of the pollution comes from illegal sewer connections that carry raw sewage directly into storm sewers or indirectly through the city’s drainage system. Some comes from sewer overflows that send untreated waste water directly into rivers and the harbor.

The suit charges that the commission has not done enough to track down illicit sewer links or to implement programs it planned, such as working with contractors to reduce pollutants from construction sites.

Kilian pointed to cities such as Philadelphia and New York that are taking steps to improve their drainage systems to minimize pollution.

“It’s one of the biggest problems in the country causing water pollution,’’ Kilian said. “It’s time for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission to get out of the Stone Age and start applying modern thinking.’’

It remains unclear how much it would cost the commission if it were ordered to upgrade its systems and whether Boston ratepayers would see higher bills as a result.

The Boston Water and Sewer Commission’s infrastructure covers more than 14 square miles of land and hundreds of discharge pipes into rivers and harbor, Kilian said. The commission was created in 1977 and is run by a three-member board appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

The foundation previously sued the state Highway Department over road pollution, calling for better drainage systems and restrictions to prevent grease, oil, and pollutants from being washed directly into rivers and streams. The state was ordered to make improvements, but in May, a federal judge scolded the state Department of Transportation for ignoring the court order.

Since then, Kilian said, the state has updated three stretches of highway and developed a plan for continued improvements. Kilian said he hopes the city’s progress will be swift when the commission is pressed to focus on improving its infrastructure and rooting out problems.

Kilian said the Boston Water and Sewer Commission has focused on maintaining infrastructure, instead of modernizing to improve water quality in Boston and its harbor.

“There really needs to be an evolution of the system in the way it is managed,’’ he said.

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