Washington, DC — For the past eight years, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has allowed hundreds of industries to discharge unknown amounts of toxic chemicals into municipal sewage plants without state permits, according to agency records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, streams of harmful chemicals may have entered Boston Harbor and other state water bodies for years without any warning to municipalities, fishermen or consumers.
Beginning in 1998, DEP has issued what are called “forbearance letters” to at least 278 industrial wastewater dischargers. These forbearance letters “temporarily” waive all permit limits, monitoring requirements, and holding tank approvals, as well as all state fees. These forbearance letters remain in effect today.
Based upon records obtained by PEER, the state waived regulation over an estimated 1.4 million gallons per day of wastewater entering municipal sewage systems. Although some municipal sewage plants monitor industrial dischargers carefully, others do not. According to DEP records, the industrial wastewater sent to treatment plants that do not have industrial pre-treatment programs were found to carry everything from radioactive elements, such as radium, to heavy metals, such as barium and chromium, as well as an array of acids, acetones and other chemicals. Due to a lack of state monitoring, it is unknown how much of the chemical mix reached public water bodies.
“Massachusetts is guilty of a jaw-dropping abdication of its public health responsibilities,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former lawyer and biologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “There is no excuse for this egregious eight-year dereliction of duty.”
Sewage plants themselves have federal permits limiting the pollutants they may discharge, but these permits do not necessarily cover every toxic pollutant that industries are putting into the sewer system. This is especially problematic when neither the sewage plants nor the government knows what pollutants industries are discharging.
Even the precise extent of the DEP wastewater waiver practice is unclear, as DEP misplaced final copies of some of the forbearance letters.
DEP issued the forbearance letters on the pretext that it was on the verge of promulgating new regulations. However, these regulations were not proposed until more than eight years after the forbearance letters became standard operating procedure.
In late September, DEP finally proposed regulations to replace forbearance letters. These proposed rules, however, would still eliminate individual state permits for virtually all but the largest industrial sewage dischargers regardless of how toxic their discharges may be.
“Unfortunately, the proposed new rules are also inadequate,” Bennett added, noting that DEP is also claiming that it lacks funds to run an adequate program. “At this point, the Legislature needs to step in and ensure DEP will finally start properly regulating the flow of industrial wastewater throughout the Commonwealth.”