Posted on December 1, 2020
The Environmental Protection Agency finalized and issued a Clean Water Act general permit for wastewater treatment plants discharging to New Hampshire’s Great Bay estuary.
In a press release Tuesday, the EPA said the new permit “will protect water quality and the health of ecosystems throughout the estuary by limiting nitrogen discharges.”
Under terms of the permit, which EPA developed in coordination with the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, 13 wastewater treatment plants in 12 New Hampshire communities are eligible for coverage and, if they voluntarily choose to opt into the permit, will be required to meet seasonal average load limits for total nitrogen designed to protect the estuary from water quality impairments due to excess nutrient loading.
“This permit is an important and innovative approach for a significantly cleaner, healthier Great Bay and reflects many years of hard work among federal, state and local governments to address a critical environmental problem,” said EPA New England Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel. “The permit is part of a federal and state approach that will reduce nitrogen in Great Bay in a cost-effective way, allowing municipal leaders the flexibility to make local decisions that are good for the environment and work for their communities. This is good news for New Hampshire communities and their ratepayer customers.”
Since the EPA released what had been the draft general permit for Great Bay, Seacoast municipal leaders have said it could cost anywhere from $800 million to $1 billion to implement.
In a change of approach from past permits, the EPA’s new permit is calling for the communities around Great Bay to reduce nitrogen going into the waters, rather than focusing on one community at a time.
The Great Bay estuary, an estuary of national significance under EPA’s National Estuary Program, has for years experienced water quality problems such as low dissolved oxygen, algae blooms and declining eelgrass habitat, all results of excessive nitrogen discharges, according to EPA officials.
The communities said they support a goal of improving the health of the bay, which has seen an increase in algae blooms and decline in eelgrass beds by 80% since the 1990s. Eelgrass beds provide food and shelter for fish, shellfish and sea turtles. Eelgrass also reduces coastal erosion and keeps the water clean by filtering out excessive nutrients.
Great Bay is one of the largest estuaries in the Northeast. Seven rivers carry pollution from 52 communities in New Hampshire and Maine into the 1,020-square-mile watershed for the bay.
Scientists working for area communities previously questioned the science used to come to the EPA’s conclusions. Bay-area communities collectively have spent more than $200 million to upgrade or replace their wastewater treatment plants to reduce nitrogen discharge. Those moves have cut nitrogen releases by 70%, but the EPA says more needs to be done.
The 12 communities eligible for coverage under the general permit are Portsmouth (two facilities), Newington, Durham, Newmarket, Epping, Exeter, Newfields, Dover, Rochester, Rollinsford, Somersworth and Milton, according to the EPA.
The communities asked EPA and DES for the flexibility to focus on reducing nitrogen from nonpoint sources, rather than additional treatment at municipal wastewater treatment plants, the EPA stated in its press release.
EPA and DES responded to that request, and the general permit largely accommodates the communities’ preference to achieve the necessary nitrogen reductions through investments in nonpoint source controls, the EPA said.
The permit includes limits on the discharge of nitrogen from municipal wastewater plants that almost all communities are expected to meet through optimization of existing facilities.
Dover City Manager Michael Joyal said the city received an email Tuesday notifying them the permit was issued.
“Here in Dover we will begin reviewing the details of the permit in the days ahead to understand the requirements that have been established by the EPA and will identify further steps needed to ensure compliance with its provisions,” Joyal said.
Rochester City Manager Blaine Cox said Tuesday “the permit and supporting documentation are detailed (105 pages!) and require analysis.”
“However, we are encouraged by what we have seen thus far,” Cox added. “It appears that the EPA and NHDES have listened and are willing to work with the 13 communities,” Cox said. “Like Manager Joyal has stated for Dover, the team here in Rochester will need some time to read, understand and analyze the details. Only then will we know the full implications.”
Portsmouth Deputy City Attorney Suzanne Woodland said Tuesday “the city is pleased that the final permit was issued timely and the city is reviewing it.”
Melissa Paly, the Great Bay – Piscataqua waterkeeper from the Conservation Law Foundation, said “we are still digesting the details of this long-awaited permit and EPA’s lengthy response to comments.
“Overall, we strongly agree with the agency’s determination that significant reductions in nitrogen pollution are needed to restore the health of the rivers and bays comprising our Great Bay estuary,” Paly said Wednesday. “However, we are concerned by the lack of specifics about how communities will achieve necessary pollution reductions through better stormwater management.”
Communities have until April to decide if they want to opt into the permit. If they don’t, the EPA would work with them to address nitrogen limits in their individual clean water permits when they come up for renewal.
Gov. Chris Sununu issued a statement after the EPA finalized the permit.
“This permit has been several years in the making and works to reduce nitrogen pollution in the Great Bay estuary that was discovered more than a decade ago,” Sununu said. “The structure of this permit enables the communities around the Great Bay to have flexibility to both restore the estuary and carefully steward the financial resources of their municipalities.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.