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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has worked for decades with New York and Connecticut to clean up Long Island Sound. Too much nitrogen in the water has led to “dead zones” where fish and shellfish can’t survive. Now the federal agency is asking sewage treatment plants nearly 200 miles away in other states to help reduce pollutants that are hurting the sound. As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, John Dillon of Vermont Public Radio reports.
Paul Stacey is director of planning for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. He’s worked on Long Island Sound issues for 25 years, and has seen the water pollution first-hand.
“Nitrogen is a nutrient. It’s the same nutrient that makes your lawn turn green. In the case of Long Island Sound it makes the water turn green.”
Nitrogen fuels algae blooms in the sound. And when the algae decay, oxygen levels drop killing aquatic life. Stacey says this first caught the attention of scientists in the mid-1980s
“The marine fishery sampling was pulling up dead and dying organisms such as benthic worms and the less mobile organisms that were not able to escape.”
Since then, Connecticut has launched an aggressive clean-up campaign to cut nitrogen pollution. But Stacey and the E-P-A say more needs to be done upstream, on the Connecticut River.
The main sewage plant for the town of Hartford in Vermont, is getting updated. It was built almost 40 years ago and is starting to show its age.
“Clearly you got a 1970s façade here that we’re looking to do a nice face job, take out some of the windows that are less efficient.”
Plant manager John Choate explains that a big part of the renovation includes new technology to reduce pollution.
“The new design will be to raise this wall up higher to give us more volume.”
Now every gallon of treated sewage will be cleaner, but the plant will be able to treat more water – so the overall amount of treated water released into the Connecticut River will increase.
And that’s got the EPA concerned. Ken Moraff works in the agency’s ecosystem protection division.
“The key thing to remember here is that this is a real environmental problem in Long Island Sound.”
Moraff says Connecticut and New York have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to cut pollution coming from their sewage treatment plants. And he says Vermont needs to do its part as well.
“Given the level of investment that’s being made in the downstream states, that’s at least the upstream states can be expected to do – at least don’t increase your contribution to the problem.”
But in Vermont local officials complain their taxpayers will have to pay for a problem they’re not responsible for. Richard Menge is public works director in Hartford, Vermont.
“It’s going to cost a lot of money to make these improvements with no measurable gain downstream.”
The EPA disagrees. Ken Moraff:
“What we’re asking Vermont to do is not to make a large capital investment in new treatment facilities, but to manage the plant in a way to reduce nitrogen discharges, or at least so that the increased flow from the treatment plant won’t increase the overall load of nitrogen.”
The EPA regulatory reach is rare. but not unprecedented.
“You’re seeing sort of the gorilla come out of the closet if you will, with the EPA taking a stronger role in these cases.”
Vermont Law School Professor Pat Parenteau says the EPA has a clear mandate under the Clean Water Act to work on pollution issues that cross state borders.
“I think EPA has finally come to the conclusion that they can’t rely on individual states to bring these discharges down. It’s not happening fast enough. These waters are not improving. In many cases they’re getting worse.”
Parenteau says he wouldn’t be surprised to see the EPA take a bigger role in regulating interstate issues, even if it means states have to spend more money to clean up pollution that’s hundreds of miles away.
Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative.