The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its contractor, Tetra Tech, hosted a webinar about the Long Island Sound Study and its progress on the Nitrogen Reduction Strategy on December 19, 2016. The Nitrogen Reduction Strategy was created to meet a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to help alleviate hypoxia caused by low levels of dissolved oxygen in the open waters of the Sound. Tetra Tech will use existing hydrodynamic models and “good data” from existing studies to develop nitrogen thresholds and loads for the Sound, and allocation options (Mike Paul, Tetra Tech). The data is sourced from various universities, watershed groups, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and can date back to the 1970s. There does not appear to be a commitment to a new comprehensive sampling program, and how historical data will be screened to determine its accuracy and usefulness is not clear. Utilizing older data, from a multitude of sources, with inconsistent and non-uniform collection techniques as the foundation for science-based rulemaking does not make sense.
EPA repeatedly emphasized that transparency is critical in this process and the importance of collaborating with neighboring states and partners. However, EPA failed to truly embrace the public process, noting that it does not intend to do extensive outreach to the communities in neighboring states affected by the Strategy. Instead, it hopes that state agencies will reach out to the communities, and that other entities will periodically “check in” on the website for program updates. An EPA representative explicitly stated that the Strategy would not be open to public comment because they did not want to “be overwhelmed by having to respond to each comment.” EPA and Tetra Tech said comments may be accepted through an online form for certain technical documents, but that they are not required to respond to them, because it is not a rulemaking process. According to an EPA representative, a public meeting was held in Massachusetts explaining the Study and Strategy in May and that periodic webinars would inform stakeholders on progress. The level of outreach EPA intends to do to notify communities of the webinars is unclear. So far, for the most part, the process has been under the radar.
Becky Weidman of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) is one of the only Massachusetts representatives on any of the 12 different advising committees. The Science and Technical Advisory Committee guiding the Study and developing the criteria is made up of a variety of universities, colleges, environmental groups, and government agencies from Connecticut and New York. Massachusetts municipalities and utilities have no significant representation on any committees. MCWRS acknowledges EPA’s efforts to inform the public and focus efforts on LIS communities. However, Massachusetts communities should also be actively and directly involved in the planning process, since they will ultimately be issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permits reflecting the results of the study. Retrofitting wastewater treatment plants to meet stringent nitrogen limits can exceed hundreds of millions of dollars. When science-based studies are utilized to develop criteria for revised TMDLs and for setting nutrient limits in NPDES permits, it sounds like rulemaking, which requires a prescribed public comment period and process. ‘Hoping’ that State partners will update permittees and communities about the Study is disingenuous and subverts the spirit of the rulemaking process. Not surprisingly, the webinar reemphasized a well-known issue in the tenuous relationship between EPA and municipalities/utilities; EPA touts public involvement, working with communities, and relying on ‘good’ science, but often fails to put its words into action.