A very old sewer system is still in use at about 800 wastewater treatment plants in the U.S., including along the Connecticut River. It’s called “combined sewer overflow,” or CSO. What overflows into waterways is a mix of storm water, street runoff and raw sewage.
Every wastewater treatment plant in the country, by federal law, has a long-term plan to end their CSO use. How that’s happening, town-to-town and state-to-state, differs greatly. That’s evident on a relatively short stretch of the Connecticut River, as it flows from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Hartford, Connecticut. How water pollution permits are issued appears to be one of the greatest hurdles.
At the wastewater treatment plant in Springfield, the Environmental Protection Agency is running 17 years late on the CSO pollution permit. Specifically, it’s the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, or NPDES. The permit details how many gallons of CSO effluent are allowed per year, per pipe, and if plants need to adjust their system.
Springfield has 23 CSO outflows in the river -- several located right behind the Basketball Hall of Fame. On a cloudy – but not rainy – day, Andrea Donlon, the Massachusetts river steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy, climbed over a fence and down an embankment to "Union Street CSO 15a and 15b.” She took a spreadsheet of 2016 CSO data out of her backpack.
“The bigger one that we're standing over discharged 18 times in that year,” Donlon said. “And the volume was estimated to be 4.9 million gallons. So that's a fair amount.”
When it rains or even just drizzles, these pipes can discharge raw sewage into the water. It's mixed with stormwater and runoff from streets, all coming together in one system.
The idea behind CSOs, which were built long before the 1972 Clean Water Act, was to avoid sending raw sewage into streets or basements. A few decades after the federal act, as towns and cities continued to address their long-polluted waterways, the EPA alerted wastewater treatment plants that they would need to end the use of CSOs. This was, and still is, a tall order for cities and ratepayers, with no promise of EPA funding.
Springfield Water and Sewer (SWS) has a $100 million “cornerstone project” underway to reduce its CSO use. This will lower the number of discharges per year, said Josh Schimmel, SWS’s executive director.
“Before we started this program, we were probably close to 700 million gallons of CSO overflow into the Connecticut River on an average annual year,” Schimmel said.
After the project is completed, Schimmel said that annual average will be in the range of 275-300 million gallons per year, considerably lower – but is it low enough?
At the end of 2017, the EPA released a long-awaited draft version of the CSO permit for Springfield. After months of public comment, a final permit is expected by the end of 2018. It’s not clear if Schimmel’s estimates on gallons of CSO effluent will be within the limits of the permit.
A different kind of CSO abatement project is underway 30 miles downstream from Springfield. The Hartford Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) is building an enormous tunnel as part of its long-term CSO control plan. On rainy days, when there is sewage and stormwater overflow, the tunnel will hold onto the mix until the treatment plant has the capacity to clean it up. The cost, including other plant upgrades, is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In Connecticut, those paying attention to the health of the river – especially the river’s nitrogen level, which is impacting the health of Long Island Sound -- think Springfield should be held to the same level of investment as Hartford. Robert Moore, a former administrator at Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environment and the Hartford MDC, is among them.
“[Springfield’s] program was to spend about $100 [to] $150 million dollars total,” Moore said. “And Hartford is spending a $100 million a year.”
It was a court order that began the massive project in Hartford. The EPA took the city's water authority to court for pollution violations and in 2006, the MDC was ordered to undergo big, very specific changes.
George Hawkins, who up until recently was the head of DCWater, Washington D.C.’s Water and Sewer Authority, said he can understand where Connecticut is coming from.
“We're at the bottom end of the Potomac River and the Anacostia, before it goes to the Chesapeake,” Hawkins said. “We are spending enormous sums of money doing our part. Well, at some point there's no more we can do here because the water coming to us, upstream, already [has] contaminants in it.”
DCWater is completing the first phase of a massive tunnel project to reduce combined sewer overflows in Washington. The project will cost billions of dollars and it’s being paid for by loans, grants and customers. Hawkins said ratepayer bills have tripled in the last decade.
Hawkins, who is now a wastewater system consultant, said not every city can do what Washington D.C. and Hartford are doing now, or what Boston did starting in the 1980s, and he’s sympathetic.
"From the perspective of Springfield or any municipality that is not flush with cash, where are they going to come up with the money to do projects of this scale?” Hawkins asked.
Hartford is a regional wastewater treatment plant and almost all of its customers from the surrounding towns it serves pay into the plant upgrade.
Springfield is also a regional plant, taking in wastewater from several surrounding towns, but Schimmel said only Springfield customers pay for CSO work, and they can’t afford their rates to soar. Plus, he said, there's so much else that needs to be upgraded.
“We probably have 200 miles of pipe greater than 75 years old, within our water and our sewer system,” Schimmel said, on the same spring day a downtown water main break sent manholes flying off the street.
“Our infrastructure is so old,” Schimmel said, “you can't look away for a second!”
That old infrastructure is all over New England.
Andrew Fisk, the executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy, said Springfield should find a way to get those surrounding towns it serves to help pay for plant upgrades and maintenance.
Fisk said he respects that the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission is being careful with its money and that it has other issues to deal with, but he believes the commission needs to be more visionary. Massive years-long tunnel projects are not the only way to solve the CSO problem.
“We think their solutions are too shortsighted and not comprehensive enough,” Fisk said.
But the lack of a regional approach on the Connecticut River to upgrade wastewater infrastructure, plus the illogical way water pollution regulations, permits and funding come about, isn’t helping, Fisk said.
“[The river] is now a welter of jurisdictions,” he said.
Fisk likes to think like a fish when it comes to clean water regulation. Swimming upstream, a fish doesn't know when it's crossed from Connecticut into Massachusetts, he said, and that should be the model for state and federal regulators.
When asked why he thought the EPA took 17 years to issue Springfield a new pollution permit, Fisk said it’s not clear.
“For reasons that may be obvious, and others that sort of – people are scratching their heads, I think when you look at Massachusetts and Connecticut, there are very different applications of the EPA’s authorities and policies between the two states,” Fisk said.
Three states still give the EPA authority to issue pollution permits. Massachusetts is one of them.
In Connecticut, state environmental officials are in charge of permitting. Fisk and others said it’s evident around the country that when state government has control of permitting, there’s closer oversight of local waters.
This type of oversight requires hiring more people and it costs states millions of dollars each year. But Connecticut also has money in the budget for plants to rework their CSOs. Massachusetts does not.