Jump to main content or area navigation.

Contact Us

NPDES Permits in New England

OMSAP  LogoPublic Interest Advisory Committee (PIAC) Meeting

May 17, 1999, 4:15 to 6:00 PM
New England Aquarium

Members Present: Cate Doherty (interim chair), Save the Harbor/Save the Bay; Anthony Chatwin, Conservation Law Foundation; Patty Daley, Cape Cod Commission; Marianne Farrington, New England Aquarium; Joe Favaloro, MWRA Advisory Board; Sal Genovese, Safer Waters in Massachusetts; Mary Loebig, Stop the Outfall Pipe; and Susan Redlich, Wastewater Advisory Committee.

Observers: Cathy Coniaris, OMSAP/PIAC/IAAC Assistant; Mike Delaney, MWRA; Christian Krahforst, MCZM; Matt Liebman, EPA; Steve Lipman, MADEP; Rich Masters, Normandeau; Mike Mickelson, MWRA; Andrea Rex, MWRA; Anne Smrcina, SBNMS; Sal Testaverde, NMFS; and Mason Weinrich, Cetacean Research Unit.

Summary prepared by C. Coniaris. Post-meeting comments are included in [brackets].


  1. PIAC will comment on IAAC's proposed revisions to the OMSAP charter.
  2. C. Doherty will list the concerns of the PIAC regarding the food web issue to the OMSAP at their next meeting. She will also note differences of opinion among PIAC members (see below).

March 2, 1999 meeting summary was approved with no amendments.

C. Doherty described the changes IAAC is proposing to the OMSAP charter. The most significant proposed change is the IAAC mission from "The [IAAC] will advise the OMSAP on environmental regulations" to "The [IAAC] will advise the OMSAP, EPA and MADEP on scientific, technical and/or regulatory matters related to the discharges from and operations of the MWRA system outfalls that may directly or indirectly affect Boston Harbor, Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay. The IAAC may review or evaluate other environmental matters as necessary." ACTION: A copy of the proposed revisions to the charter will be sent to PIAC (and OMSAP) for comment.

PIAC reviewed the draft OMSAP agenda. The group asked about the proposed MWRA threshold revisions and M. Mickelson replied that MWRA is not prepared to discuss in detail specific threshold numbers at this time but they were preparing to brief OMSAP on potential revisions to the chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen and floatable thresholds. The June 10 presentation will be an information-only briefing and OMSAP will not be asked to vote on any revisions. [UPDATE: The June 10 OMSAP meeting has been cancelled due to the postponement of the Cape Cod Commission's Food Web Indicators proposal.]


Background to NPDES draft permit requirement for a food web model scope of work (FWMSOW)
M. Liebman described the reasoning behind the FWMSOW in the draft NPDES permit (see handout). EPA requested a FWMSOW since there is uncertainty in: (a) what controls the distribution, movement, and feeding behavior of humpback and right whales in Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays, (note: zooplankton patches are a key factor for right whale feeding); (b) right whales are among the most endangered mammals on earth; and (c) the outfall may affect phytoplankton to some degree, and therefore may have an effect on zooplankton populations. A scope of work is a descriptive plan for conducting a task, in this case a food web model, which may be qualitative or quantitative, and not necessarily predictive. The focus should be on the main prey species of right whales (zooplankton), the factors that control zooplankton abundance, and noxious algae (e.g. Phaeocystis) that may affect zooplankton or right whales directly.

MWRA response to draft permit requirement
M. Mickelson described MWRA's progress towards preparing a FWMSOW (see handout). Since the FWMSOW language appeared in the February 1998 draft permit, MWRA has been working in consultation with the Outfall Monitoring Task Force and the Outfall Monitoring Science Advisory Panel on this draft requirement. If the final NPDES permit includes the same language as the draft permit regarding the FWMSOW, then MWRA will submit its scope of work [UPDATE: see below]. M. Mickelson then described the conceptual food web model for Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays developed by Jack Kelly et al. and the subsequent review of that food web model by OMSAP member Bob Kenney. In his review, B. Kenney pointed out that the Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay (MB/CCB) conceptual model is only a small part of the life of a right whale and that there are many other factors which affect its life history.

Cape Cod Commission's Food Web Indicators proposal
P. Daley stated that the Cape Cod Commission is proposing a "Food Web Indicators" approach instead of the MWRA FWMSOW. The Commission will present an overview of this approach at the June 10 OMSAP meeting. From the Commission's briefing dated May 17, 1999 to the PIAC and IAAC, "The Cape Cod Commission proposes to establish a set of indicators or thresholds to identify and track changes and trends in the Bays ecosystem with a focus on the food web of the northern right whale. [The] purpose [is] to establish a series of thresholds to identify changes and trends in the right whale food web that may not be detected by the current warning and caution threshold levels...Food Web Indicators should be established to track specific density and particle sizes of Calanus finmarchicus, the right whale's primary food source. Food Web Indicators should also be established for other species that may affect the availability of Calanus finmarchicus, such as Phaeocystis. Particular emphasis should be placed on monitoring in the spring and summer seasons. The current monitoring program establishes some caution and warning levels for phytoplankton and nuisance algae. It also looks at species mix relative to phytoplankton. However, there is no threshold for certain aspects of species diversity that impact the northern right whale..."

The Commission disapproves of the FWMSOW flowchart (see MWRA handout) because if there is any uncertainty with a question raised, the flow chart "dead-ends" if no one conducts research to address the question. The Barnstable Science Advisory Panel will meet to further develop this Food Web Indicators proposal, hopefully by the June 10 OMSAP meeting [UPDATE: see below]. In response to a question, M. Mickelson stated that the MWRA has prepared two recent reports on phytoplankton and zooplankton: Cibik et al. (1998) "Massachusetts Bay plankton communities: characterization and discussion of issues relative to MWRA's outfall relocation" and Lemieux et al. (1998) "Massachusetts Bay zooplankton communities: a historical retrospective". [A complete list of technical reports is available at: http://www.mwra.state.ma.us/harbor/enquad/trlist.htmClick icon for EPA disclaimer.. Reports not posted on the web may be requested from bmccarthy@mwra.state.ma.us.]

M. Weinrich asked what area the FWMSOW is focusing on. M. Mickelson replied the nearfield since it is the area in which the Bays Eutrophication Model predicts will be most likely be affected by the new outfall. M. Weinrich dislikes the focus on Calanus for two reasons: Calanus patches are very dynamic and complex and this species is not the only food source of the right whales. He feels it would be easier to just monitor the presence of right whales. P. Daley agreed that that would be easier but added that there needs some way to tie in the water quality data. M. Weinrich pointed out that there are a lot factors which control right whale distributions that make it difficult to find a "smoking gun" (i.e. causal factor) if they do not visit this area. P. Daley replied that because of variability, she was not looking to determine causality.

M. Farrington feels that everyone should realize how global this is when attempting to find causality. The New England Aquarium studies right whales on an ongoing basis and there are times that, even with aerial surveys, the right whales are nowhere to be found. She also feels that there needs to be a "control" area studied where there are historic whale data available.

C. Krahforst asked that supposing a food web indicator could be defined, what would it be compared to in the baseline data. He suggested that in the Commission proposal, they choose to examine a parameter which is already being measured by the baseline monitoring. M. Weinrich understands that it is not feasible to monitor any new parameters at this point in time. He feels that the only way to pinpoint a problem with the right whales is to monitor the animals themselves. A statistically valid, drastic change would be if the number of individuals visiting MB/CCB drops to zero for three years in a row. S. Testaverde said that if there is a new environmental condition and the right whales fail to visit this area for just one year, NMFS would take action. In the past, though right whales may have not stayed to feed, they have always at least been spotted in the area for a brief period of time. M. Loebig asked about having an interim step that would examine changes in the system such as studying patch dynamics [note: patch dynamics are studied by Stormy Mayo, Cabell Davis and others]. She stated that her group has been opposed to the outfall relocation from the beginning because of the variability in this ecosystem and lack of historical research in the area around the outfall. She believes MWRA is still responsible for proving that any problems are not due to the outfall, as opposed to having advocates or others having to prove that a problem is connected to the outfall [emphasis added].

J. Favaloro feels that since the Cape Cod Commission has not provided a detailed proposal as promised by the end of April, discussion regarding the FWMSOW is difficult. M. Mickelson said that MWRA would like to help P. Daley and the Commission with any information they need. He pointed out that it has been observed in the baseline data that phytoplankton respond to nutrient addition but zooplankton do not. Therefore it has been very difficult to develop zooplankton hypotheses.

M. Loebig is concerned that the scope of work is not following the wording in the draft permit and is only focusing on zooplankton. She is much more concerned about dinoflagellates and their impact on humans and other species and thus feels that the Alexandrium threshold should be lowered. She also feels that the dormant Alexandrium cysts located on the seafloor near the new outfall site should be included in the food web model. In 1987, several humpback whales were found dead on Cape Cod and it is thought that they died from eating mackerel tainted with the red tide toxin. M. Mickelson pointed out that MWRA has thresholds for dinoflagellates, MWRA identifies and enumerates phytoplankton species, and Dr. Don Anderson at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is addressing the basic research questions regarding Alexandrium.

M. Liebman stated that EPA decided to focus on zooplankton in order to simplify and focus this difficult task. M. Loebig pointed out that there are other endangered species who also visit this area. M. Weinrich feels that right whales are key to this ecosystem not for the amount of time they spend here but rather due to their endangered status. But if there is an effect, it will first be seen with the humpback and fin whales who use Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays extensively for feeding.

M. Delaney stated that the Cape Cod Commission is examining the value of using stable isotopes of nitrogen to detect changes in the environment. The Commission is sponsoring a research project and the MWRA started providing samples for this effort in February. M. Loebig does not think this can replace the food web component. C. Krahforst feels that though there are tracers to examine spatial and food-chain-transfer effects, biological indicators are lacking. He suggested that PIAC ask OMSAP to propose what they think those indicators may be.

M. Weinrich feels that the FWMSOW is not comprehensive enough but he can not think of any other way to approach this requirement at this time. Ultimately this entire discussion about food web modeling is due to a frustration over no matter what information is collected, there will not be a "smoking gun". P. Daley wants to avoid the development of a predictive model and suggested approaching OMSAP to ask them if there are any other options. One option is the FW Indicators, which would be set low enough to detect change. She asked if this seems to be a good approach. M. Weinrich replied that the ecosystem is too complex. What determines a good food source to the right whales is the life stage of the zooplankton and location of patches.

J. Favaloro pointed out that it seemed that OMSAP was ready to approve the FWMSOW but postponed approval pending a proposal from the Cape Cod Commission. But the Commission did not provide a proposal so PIAC should support OMSAP in any decision it makes regarding the FWMSOW. M. Loebig feels that the FWMSOW seems nebulous but understands that ocean food web models are much more complicated than those for terrestrial ecosystems.

ACTION: Of the PIAC members present, five approved the following list of concerns and two chose to abstain (A. Chatwin and J. Favaloro). Most PIAC members are still concerned about whether the outfall may cause negative effects to the food web which includes endangered species. They are concerned that though significant efforts have been made to monitor, there is not enough information being collected that would show if there is a potential risk to endangered species. Though there may be methods of using chemical tracers such as stable nitrogen isotopes, there are no biological tracers to help determine whether there is a problem. It appears that the Cape Cod Commission's Food Web Indicators proposal is not ideal at this time, but no other suggestions have been brought forward. PIAC would like to ask OMSAP if they know of any other approaches for examining whether or not the outfall is adversely impacting species such as the right whale. PIAC has not formed a collective opinion on the FWMSOW at this time but several members agree that planktivorous fish (i.e. mackerel which humpback and fin whales feed on) should be added to the FWMSOW. This is because they feel that any potential adverse effects of the outfall would be first be seen in humpback and fin whales since they spend many months in this area feeding. C. Doherty will report these concerns to OMSAP at their June 10 meeting. She will also note differences of opinion among PIAC members.

[UPDATE: The June 10 OMSAP meeting has been cancelled. The MWRA have posted their food web model scope of work at: http://www.mwra.state.ma.us/harbor/enquad/pdf/99-09_enquad_report.pdf Click icon for EPA disclaimer.. The NPDES permit (page 9) states that "EPA and the MADEP, in consultation with the OMSAP discussed below, shall provide the MWRA with comments on this scope of work. Within ninety (90) days after receipt of these comments, MWRA shall submit a revised scope of work for review by OMSAP, and for approval by EPA and MADEP. After receipt of the revised scope of work, EPA and MADEP will determine whether implementation of the food web model is warranted." OMSAP will comment on the FWMSOW at its next meeting, sometime in early fall.]

C. Coniaris updated the group on the approach for the OMSAP public workshop. The workshop will be relatively technical in order to describe monitoring results as well as answer questions from the public. The meeting will be open to the public, and a summary paper will be drafted and widely distributed. PIAC agreed to this approach. There will be a workshop planning meeting on May 18, 1999. [UPDATE: The planning group recommends that OMSAP host a two-day technical workshop to describe the results of seven years of baseline water quality, benthic, and fish/shellfish monitoring as well as summarize the 10-year Boston Harbor Clean-up Project. This meeting will also address public concerns in preparation for a public workshop. It will be scheduled for late summer and will be open to the public. Since the outfall is scheduled to go on-line by late September, the group also suggests that OMSAP host a public workshop in September to brief citizens on monitoring and address concerns. This would be an evening event geared towards the public.]


Time did not allow for the following agenda items: strategies on how to get information to the public and election of chair. They will be addressed at the next PIAC meeting.


  • May 1999 OMSAP/PIAC/IAAC membership lists
  • March 2, 1999 draft PIAC meeting summary
  • June 10 draft OMSAP agenda
  • Cape Cod Commission's Food Web Indicators approach briefing
  • Background to EPA's request for a food web model scope of work briefing
  • MWRA's progress toward preparing a food web model scope of work briefing
  • MWRA Boston Harbor Project and monitoring overview packet
  • OMSAP Workshop briefing

Jump to main content.