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EPA and DEP Issue Permit for Discharges from Deer Island Treatment Plant; Permit Includes Stringent Requirements and Reflects Public Comment

Release Date: 05/20/1999
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office (617-918-1008)

BOSTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Office and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) today issued the toughest and most aggressive discharge permit ever written for a secondary sewage treatment plant in this country. It will provide greater protection to coastal wasters than any permit issued anywhere in the country.

"This is the final piece in the Boston Harbor cleanup puzzle," said John P. DeVillars, EPA's New England Administrator. "Boston Harbor, Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays and their beaches will be substantially cleaner and better protected as a result of this effort."

The permit sets stringent limits on pollutants to be discharged into the Massachusetts Bay through the 9.5-mile outfall tunnel constructed as part of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority's new wastewater treatment plant on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. The wastewater will be dispersed through 55 discharge points along the last 1.2 miles of the tunnel.

The new Deer Island facility, which treats wastewater from 43 cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts, is already in partial operation and is scheduled for completion later this year.

The permit includes extraordinary water conservation and pollution prevention requirements and reflects extensive public comment made over the last year on the draft permit issued in February 1998.

The discharge permit also includes a detailed plan for monitoring discharges and a requirement that the MWRA take certain actions if unexpected problems arise. This is the first time the EPA has required such a contingency plan in issuing a discharge permit. The contingency plan establishes "caution" and "warning" levels for a range of environmental indicators. If the effluent reaches warning levels, prompt action is required unless there is convincing evidence that the discharge is not contributing to an environmental problem.

The permit also breaks new ground by making unprecedented use of the Internet so that the public can actively monitor discharges and any impacts on Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays.

"The issuance of this final permit represents a major milestone for water quality in Massachusetts," said DEP Assistant Commissioner Arleen O'Donnell. "The permit ensures that MWRA will continue initiatives in water conservation and pollution prevention, while dramatically increasing water quality protection."

"This permit is a stepping stone to a milestone in the cleanup of Boston Harbor," added Cate Doherty, policy and program director at Save the Harbor/Save the Bay. "The permit being issued today is the most stringent permit of its kind in the nation and contains the most comprehensive monitoring plan for any secondary wastewater treatment plant in the country. We would like to congratulate the DEP, EPA and MWRA on their efforts to create a permit that will maintain the integrity of the Mass Bay ecosystem while dramatically improving water quality in Boston Harbor."

Largely as a result of public comments made in writing and at meetings, the final permit includes:

    • Stringent requirements to reduce infiltration of water into the sewer system, which can result in sewer overflows.
    • Strengthens the role of an independent science advisory panel in evaluating monitoring data.
    • Prohibits any adverse effect on critical habitat for endangered species.
    • Includes new requirements concerning the maintenance of the Deer Island treatment plant, the protection of the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary and monitoring for red tides.
In addition, the permit:
    • Sets strict limits for discharges from 15 "combined sewer overflows" that discharge into Boston Harbor, as well as the Charles and Mystic Rivers and Alewife Brook, during wet weather. CSOs are pipes that collect both wastewater and storm runoff and discharge directly into a body of water after heavy rains.
    • Requires that the MWRA discharge meet water quality standards for 158 pollutants, as well as secondary treatment standards set by EPA, to protect human health, whales, shellfish and other aquatic life.
    • Includes numeric limits for suspended solids, fecal coliform bacteria, pH, chlorine, PCBs and CBOD (oxygen-demanding material).
    • Requires the MWRA to periodically test the toxicity of the effluent as a whole on sensitive marine organisms. Because some chemicals may have synergistic effects, reacting unpredictably when they are combined, the permit establishes strict limits based on those tests.
The permit also utilizes the Internet so that the public can actively monitor discharges and any impacts on Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays. The MWRA is required to post a broad spectrum of data on a free-access web site. When specified environmental indicators reach "caution" or "warning" levels, this data must be posted.

EPA has established an electronic distribution list that will distribute key monitoring data for interested parties. Those interested can subscribe by sending an email message to: The subject line of the message should be blank. The text of the message should be as follows: subscribe mwrapermit [subscriber's first name] [subscriber's last name].

DeVillars said today's permit will build on the strong momentum already underway in cleaning up Boston Harbor. "We've made huge progress in the harbor cleanup," DeVillars said. "This effort accelerates that progress."

DeVillars cited the following evidence of progress in restoring Boston Harbor:

    • MWRA discharges are dramatically cleaner. Deer Island effluent exceeded bacteria standards on 139 days in 1988; only seven days in 1998. Solids in the discharges are down 75 percent, from 165 tons per day in 1988 to 42 tons per day in 1998. Toxic metals are down almost 80 percent, from 1,074 pounds per day in 1989 to 237 pounds per day in 1998.
    • Mercury levels in flounder caught near Deer Island declined from 123 parts per billion in 1988 to 43 parts ppb in 1998. (The FDA limit is 1,000 ppb).
    • PCBs in flounder dropped from 420 ppb in 1986 to 44 ppb in 1998.
    • In 1987, more than 70 percent of flounder in Boston Harbor had liver disease and more than 10 percent had tumors. In 1998, 30 percent had liver disease and no tumors were found.