Neponset allies alarmed by Baker’s push for pollution monitoring

A proposal from Gov. Charlie Baker that would shift more authority for pollution monitoring from federal authorities to the state has reignited simmering concerns among environmental groups about the Bay State’s ability to protect local rivers and streams.

Baker has filed legislation (H.2777) that would give state powers complete control of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), an environmental permitting program that is currently run by federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On April 21, the Massachusetts River Alliance (MRA), composed of 65 environmental organizations across the commonwealth, sent a letter to the House Committee on Ways and Means urging the body not to move forward with budget allocations for the governor’s amendment.

As the law exists today, new developments with pollution discharge— like factories and water treatment plants— are required to seek permits from EPA to drain runoff into local waterways. The federal agency also assesses the quality of local waterways and sets standards for their maximum pollutant levels. Baker’s proposal would shift those powers to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Gov. Baker has argued that the state is better equipped to “work effectively with communities that have requirements in wastewater, stormwater and other water resource programs.”

“And by passing this legislation, Massachusetts will use sound science, current information and our close working relationship with cities and towns to protect their water quality,” Baker said at a press conference on March 8.

But river advocates— including those who closely watch conditions along the Neponset River that runs through Dorchester and Mattapan— are skeptical about the state agency’s capacity to do a better job that their federal colleagues.

Ian Cooke, who leads the MRA and the Neponset River Watershed Association, said the Mass DEP already struggles to carry out its current responsibilities.

“The single biggest concern at the outset is frankly about funding. The state of Massachusetts has simply not funded its existing obligations under the federal Clean Water Act,” said Cooke. “And in that context it doesn’t make a lot of sense… to say ‘Great we’re not paying for what we’re supposed to be doing already, let’s add five to ten million dollars worth of work to the list of things we’re not paying for.”
“The agency’s not functioning now, it doesn’t make sense for it to do more,” said Cooke.

DEP’s funding has seen a steep decline in the past two decades. According to the nonpartisan Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, state budget allocations for the environment, when adjusted for inflation, have decreased by 37.7 percent since 2001. State Rep. Dan Hunt, who represents parts of Quincy and Dorchester close to the river and Dorchester Bay, agreed.

“Historically [DEP] has been an underfunded agency and that’s still the case today,” said Hunt.

Along the Neponset River, state regulation delays have had a significant impact. The most recent published DEP water quality assessment of the river dates back to 2004. Another assessment was conducted in 2009, but the findings of that survey have yet to be published.

“The Neponset River is classified as Class B Fishable-Swimmable,” explained Cooke. “The state has to go out and do regular water quality monitoring to determine whether the water bodies meet those standards. And that water monitoring has really been one of the most conspicuous areas where the state has been unable to do what it’s supposed to do.”

The Baker administration, however, is optimistic about the efficiency DEP could bring to the NPDES permitting process.

“State control over the permitting process will result in permits being written and issued in a timely way to keep pace with changing environmental conditions and ensure that local resources… will result in the greatest environmental improvement,” said Matthew Beaton, the state’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

It is not yet clear whether the governor’s proposal will find a clear path through the Legislature.
“This should go through a public hearing process so the pros and cons can be weighed,” Rep. Hunt said.

In its letter, the MRA advocated leaving NPDES authority with EPA, but also urged that more state funding be set pumped into DEP.

“MassDEP desperately needs additional funding, and we strongly support the addition of $1.41M to the agency’s budget for water quality programs,” read the letter.

Similar legislation has shifted NPDES authority from EPA to state agencies in all but four US states. But Massachusetts environmentalists remains nonplussed by the apparent inertia this proposal has had across the country. As Cooke explained, “There’s a lot of things Massachusetts does differently from the country and usually there’s good reason for that.”