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Release Date: 12/22/1998
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office (617-918-1008)

BOSTON - After extensive scientific study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued draft permits for five wastewater facilities in Massachusetts that will dramatically improve water quality along the historic Blackstone River, which runs from Worcester to Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

The permits, based on extensive sampling and pollutant modeling in the 50-mile river, will include stringent limits for various pollutants, including first-time limits on phosphorus and more-stringent limits on ammonia. Phosphorus and ammonia pollution are the primary reasons why the river has long suffered from excessive algae growth and reduced oxygen levels which, in turn, are harmful to various types of fish and other aquatic life. Ammonia can also be toxic to aquatic life.

The draft permits are for the Upper Blackstone wastewater facility in Millbury, which serves Worcester and several nearby communities, and municipal wastewater plants in Grafton, Millbury, Uxbridge and Northbridge. A similar draft permit for the Woonsocket, R.I. wastewater plant is expected to be issued in the next several weeks.

"With strong science as the backbone, this action marks a major step forward in our efforts to restore this historically-important river for fishing and swimming," said John P. DeVillars, administrator of the EPA's New England Office. "While much has been already done to clean up the Blackstone - and those efforts have resulted in a huge resurgence in tourism along the river - these permits will bring about further improvements. And we fully expect once the permits are in place and being complied with, that the river will meet water quality standards under the Clean Water Act."

While bacteria levels in the river have been greatly reduced in recent years due to earlier wastewater plant upgrades, vast stretches of the river are still heavily impacted due to excessive oxygen-demanding pollutants such as phosphorus and ammonia. Phosphorus and ammonia are contained in human waste, but until now there were virtually no permitting requirements for wastewater plants to reduce such discharges.

The Upper Blackstone wastewater plant is the only facility along the river already treating wastewater to meet specific ammonia limits. Under the proposed permit, limits will be applicable during all 12 months a year as opposed to the current permit which only applies during the summer months.

"The new limits for phosphorus are especially important because they should eliminate the long-standing eutrophication problem, which has heavily impacted aquatic life," DeVillars said. "Not only will the river look cleaner, but it will also support a wider array of aquatic life, including popular sport fish."

The permits, which are subject to a 60-day public comment period, will be the focus of a public hearing from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) offices in Worcester. Public meetings will also be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 26 and Feb. 4 at sites to be determined. For information about those meetings, call the EPA's George Papadopolous at 617-918-1579.

EPA expects to issue the final permits in the spring after all of the public comments have been reviewed.

The recommended permits are the result of comprehensive studies of the river by the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Massachusetts and Rhode Island environmental agencies and the University of Rhode Island. The studies included thousands of water and sediment samples from the river during different seasons and weather conditions.

The samples were then used in computer models to predict the cumulative impacts of various pollutants in the river - and what actions would be necessary to reduce pollution levels so that the the river would meet water quality standards.

The draft permits include first-time limits on phosphorus discharges. The Upper Blackstone facility will be required to meet a limit of .75 parts per million, more than a three-fold reduction from their current discharges which average about 2.5 parts per million. The phosphorus limit for the smaller municipal plants will be 1 part per million.

The permits also include first-time ammonia limits for three municipal plants as well as implementation of pollution prevention programs to reduce metal discharges. The pollution prevention programs will be modeled after a pollution prevention program the Upper Blackstone facility has been implementing for several years to encourage industrial companies to reduce their usage and discharges of metal-containing materials and to control corrosion of copper and lead from water distribution pipes.

The public participation component of the pollution prevention program is modeled after the "Toxic Use Diet," implemented by the Rhode Island-based environmental group, Save The Bay, in the Town of Northbridge.