Update: in June, we submitted another comment on the permit for Holyoke’s wastewater treatment facility. This comment is linked below, but was not included in the original blog post or tallies. 

For those of us connected to the wastewater system (i.e. sewage system), each day we send our wastewater to a facility where it is separated out (solids from liquids), disinfected and the effluent (liquid) is then released, usually into a nearby river; solids might be sent to a landfill, applied to agricultural land, or incinerated. Okay, there are a few more steps, but that’s the gist of it. If you want the full details, check this out. Because of the release of  treated liquid into waterways, the way these facilities operate has an immediate impact on the health of the Connecticut River and its tributaries.

When the Clean Water Act came into play in 1972, it established a permit system called the “National Pollution Discharge Elimination System” or ‘NPDES.’ The purpose of NPDES permits is to carry out the goals of the Clean Water Act and to eliminate pollution from point sources; point sources are discrete sources of pollution, like a pipes or ditches.  Clearly, we haven’t reached the pollution ‘elimination’ goal of the NPDES permit yet, but these permits are an important way to continue to reduce the amount of pollutants entering our waterways. While the permits are supposed to be updated every five years, due to backlogs at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many permits have not been updated in the last decade or more.

In the MA portion of the watershed, we have 48 NPDES permits from wastewater and industrial plants. This last month, five wastewater draft NPDES permits came up for renewal, providing an important opportunity to comment on the strengths of the permits, as well as areas we think need to be improved. These five permits all fall into the top 15 largest discharge permits in the MA portion of the watershed. We commented on wastewater permits for Amherst, Northampton, Palmer, Montague and Westfield.

Altogether, these facilities:

  • can discharge up to 29.23 million gallons/day of effluent
  • have not been updated in an average of 13.4 years
  • can release 1,982 lbs/day of average total nitrogen. (why do we care about nitrogen so much??)*
  • manage the wastewater for ~129,000 people

To put these numbers into context, the combined nitrogen release for the 48 facilities in the valley is capped at 8,511 pounds/day, so these five facilities could account for almost 25% of all nitrogen coming from MA permit holders. It’s important to note, however, that the numbers above represent how much the facilities can release, but releases are often lower than the allowance. For example, the 48 facilities in the valley have the capacity to release 179 million gallons of effluent each day, but on average discharged on 98 million gallons per day. Of the 1,982lbs/day of nitrogen allotted for the above facilities, they released an average of 1,572lbs/day over the last five years.

We appreciate the important work wastewater operators and staff play in protecting the health of the Connecticut River and the progress in water quality over the last 50 years is a testament to their work. Without wastewater treatment plants, which provide a service we all need, we wouldn’t be able to swim, boat and enjoy the river as we do today.

In an effort to get closer to the goals set out by the Clean Water Act to eliminate point-source pollution, CRC comments on permits to encourage EPA to establish progressively more stringent requirements that keep working towards pollution reduction and elimination. Our comments for each permit are different, but generally, we are asking EPA to do more to reduce nitrogen pollution, ensure the endangered species won’t be harmed by discharges, increase testing for facilities with repeated violations and standardize pH limitations. You can read our full comments by clicking the links below.

Facility operators, government agencies, advocates and individuals have worked together productively over the last several decades to improve water quality in the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound. We recognize that the work isn’t done and we’re eager to keep pushing for greater reduction in pollutants over the next 50 years.

Want to do your part? Here are a few ideas that will help reduce your personal impact:

  • Check out 10 ways to reduce your water use at home. This will minimize what you send to the treatment plant and, ultimately, the Connecticut River.
  • Reduce or eliminate the use of chemical fertilizer on your lawn. This contributes to nitrogen pollution in water when it rains and runs off.
  • Replace grass lawns with native plants and pollinators. This will also make sure nutrients stay in your garden and out of the river.
  • Don’t flush these items: diapers, “flushable” wipes (they aren’t flushable!), personal hygiene products and medications
  • Take public transportation or ride your bike. Burning fossil fuels adds nitrogen to the atmosphere, which comes back down to our waterways when it rains or snows.

*Nitrogen is a plant nutrient and occurs naturally, but humans contribute to an excess of nitrogen in our environment. Nitrogen can be found in chemical fertilizers, it is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels (meaning it can be deposited in water when it rains) and is in our wastewater. When there is an overload of nitrogen in the water, it causes plants and algae to grow very quickly. While this sounds like a good thing, eventually the plants will decompose and, when they do, they use up the oxygen in the water. This results in low-oxygen levels in the water (bad for wildlife), which has been a major issue in the Long Island Sound, where all of the water in the Connecticut River ends up.