Springfield Water & Sewer Commission

Location: Springfield, Massachusetts | Status: Active

Summary: A new nitrogen limit imposed on the Springfield Water & Sewer Commission (Springfield) and other Massachusetts sewage plants represents a significant victory in Save the Sound’s decades-long campaign to eliminate dead zones in Long Island Sound by reducing nitrogen discharges. In late May, the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board upheld the agency’s decision to impose a 5 mg/L limit on nitrogen based upon the Springfield plant’s capacity.

This limit was the result of years of legal advocacy by Save the Sound and is part of a broader vision to eliminate nitrogen fueled dead zones from Long Island Sound. It also upholds and affirms the critical principal that the Clean Water Act prohibits any discharges that are imperiling the health of a waterbody, and such mandates can override older regulatory schemes such as the 2000 Long Island Sound Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Plan that may be outdated and no longer protective.

The Springfield nitrogen limits represent progress in controlling the huge amounts of nitrogen entering Long Island Sound and the dead zone from the upper Connecticut River. It has been estimated that 1,776.7 metric tons per year (or 10,820 pounds per day) of total nitrogen was discharged to the Connecticut River, and eventually Long Island Sound, from Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

EPA originally sought a far weaker approach in its first draft permit, favored by Springfield, that Springfield “optimize” nitrogen treatment. This basically means they would do their best but there would be no actual limit placed on nitrogen. Save the Sound, along with others, testified in opposition to this and argued that a real limit had to be imposed due to the impact on Long Island Sound. In their final Response to Comments, EPA agreed and imposed a 5 mg/L limit on Springfield, and also imposed a number of other limits derived from the same method on other Massachusetts sewage treatment plants. The final limit issued to Springfield and other Massachusetts plants is calculated to stop any increases in nitrogen loading to Long Island Sound. However, it is more significant in that there will be nitrogen limits and controls in place. Once EPA completes the work of calculating nitrogen loads for Long Island Sound, the limits can be adjusted downward to meet the target.

Springfield challenged the permit limits by appealing to the Environmental Appeals Board, arguing, among other things, that the limits were not justified, not scientifically backed, and not within EPA’s authority to issue. Save the Sound filed an amicus brief supporting the limits and arguing they represented the minimum necessary to protect Long Island Sound. In a nearly 100-page opinion, the Environmental Appeals Board upheld the limits, categorically denying all of Springfield’s arguments. Most notably, the Appeals Board found that the 2000 TMDL Plan did not constitute a ceiling on protections for Long Island Sound but did constitute a floor. That is, the mandate to set limits that will be protective of water quality override specific limits included in these plans. This is exactly what we had argued for 5 years and this will be instrumental in being able to advocate for, and achieve, meaningful limits that will fully restore Long Island Sound.

Latest Step: Victory in Environmental Appeals Board in imposing 5 mg/l limit on Springfield.

Next Step: Ensure that other MA permit limits are put in place and ensure that limits are adjusted downward.

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Last Updated: October 22, 2021

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