Flats not likely to open

By Rob Marino
Friday, October 24, 2003

The Newburyport Wastewater Treatment Plant may meet --- even exceed --- clean-water standards set in its permit. Still, the water it releases isn't clean enough to reopen Merrimack River clam flats near the plant. Ant that's not likely to change.

Simply, it would cost too many clams to reopen the beds. Sewer Superintendent Brendan O'Regan told the Salisbury Board of Selectmen at a recent meeting.

O'Regan said it would cost "millions, if not tens of millions" of dollars to make the plant's discharge clean enough for clamming.

Since clams are filter feeders, even small amounts of pollution remain concentrated in their systems.

With the state considering reopening the flats, the Salisbury officials are pressing for a cleaner discharge from the plant and questioning pollution levels found in a mysterious brown foam that forms on the river near the plant.

Selectman Chairman Edwin Hunt, who is also a local shellfish dealer, said the clam flats were closed decades ago as a result of pollution from the treatment plant. With the state possibly making a decision next month whether to reopen clam flats along the river, Hunt asked Newburyport Sewer Superintendent Brendan O'Regan whether the plant could meet stricter standards for fecal coliform limits under the National Shellfish program.

Under the plant's current National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, the fecal coliform limits are a daily maximum of 400 colonies per 100 milliliters and an average monthly maximum of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters. However, the Environmental Protection Agency is still in the process of issuing a new discharge permit for the plant and the Island Futures (Group) wants the agency to lower the average monthly maximum fecal coliform limit to 88 colonies per 100 milliliters. This level would meet the state standards for reopening shellfish beds.

Plum Island project opponents say the Sewer Department has already asked to be relieved from this more stringent requirement. O'Regan said that's not the case. If the shellfish beds were to reopen and the plant were required to abide by more stringent standards, costly improvements to the facility would probably have to be made.

"As a general rule, our permit says that we have to remove 85 percent of pollutants, and on average, we remove 90 percent to 95 percent of pollutants," O'Regan said in an interview. He conveyed the same message to selectmen Monday night. "A significant number of times, it's greater than 95 percent."

While O'Regan doesn't pretend that the plant is absolutely perfect, he told the selectmen Monday that the treatment facility consistently meets its permit limits. Regarding fecal coliform, O'Regan said the plant typically releases on average half of what its permit allows.

"If they open the clam beds, our limits are going to go down and therefore we're going to have to build something new here possibly," O'Regan said last week, adding such an improvement would be costly.

"It's not like we're going from 0 percent to 99 percent removal. We're going from 99 percent to 99.1 percent removal. Right now we're removing 99 percent of the bacteria, but to remove 99.1 percent are we going to spend millions, if not tens of millions for that 0.1 percent more? It doesn't make sense for such a small increase. That's why treatment plans are never designed around 100 percent removals, because they realize the last 15 percent is the most costly to get out. It really gets down to how clean is clean? And that's where most people differ.

The Board of Selectmen also brought up the issue of the brown foam in the river that's appeared in the past in Salisbury and along Ring's Island. Based on samples taken by the Department of Environmental Protection Protection (DEP), the Island Futures Group has submitted comments to state permit regulators that the treatment facility "apparently discharges visible foam," with high fecal coliform counts in violation of draft permit conditions. However, O'Regan said that the DEP has confirmed that the brown foam is not coming from the plant.

Despite O'Regan's claim, Salisbury Health Agent Horace Baxter, who took part in the sampling conducted by the DEP, appeared skeptical at Monday night's meeting. Baxter said the issue isn't the brown foam itself, which is a naturally occurring phenomenon, but how much fecal coliform is actually in the foam.

"The areas geographically where we took the tests would indicate that it's not in Salisbury," Baxter said to O'Regan. "If the DEP has cleared Newburyport in writing, I wish you could share that. Maybe we can work together and finally resolve this, because I'm not getting the same information you're getting from the DEP, Brendan."

"I do believe Newburyport has a good treatment plant, but personally, I think they need renovations," Hunt remarked Monday night. "I believe it has to be worked on."

O'Regan responded by inviting selectmen to take a tour of the plant. "I hope you take me up on it," he said.

"The more people that come to the plant, the more they realize the good job that my guys do there. They take their jobs very seriously. Their licenses are on the line when they report this data. They take it personally and people make statements that are not based in fact and I would just ask you to find the time to come down. We would love to have you."

(This article replicated online with permission of the Merrimack River Current.)
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