Defending the Charles River from Stormwater Pollution

Mar 12, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

In February, CLF and the Charles River Watershed Association filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA for failing to uphold the Clean Water Act and requiring large, privately owned stormwater polluters to obtain permits for their dirty discharge.

EPA’s responsibility is clear: to ensure that our waterways are safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing. The agency’s failure to require polluters to control their runoff puts the Charles’ water quality at risk and places an unfair burden on cities, towns, and, ultimately, taxpayers, to foot the bill for managing stormwater pollution.

Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

CLF is asking the EPA to hold polluters accountable for unregulated stormwater discharge, which is harming the Charles River. Photo: Charles River Watershed Association.

In part due to improvements in water pollution, the Charles River today is an incredible recreational and ecological resource flowing through the heart of Boston and surrounding communities. On any given summer day, you’ll see scores of people sailing, boating, kayaking, and fishing its waters. But the reality is, for all the progress made in cleaning up this iconic river in recent decades, significant threats to its health remain, including polluted stormwater runoff.

Along the Charles’ 80-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston Harbor you’ll find thousands of acres of strip malls, office parks, and other industrial development – along with flat roofs and huge parking lots (80% of the land area in Greater Boston is paved). All those impermeable surfaces add up to trouble when it rains or, as is happening now, snow melts.

Back when the Charles flowed through a largely natural landscape, that rain and snowmelt would have been absorbed by the ground and filtered of pollutants long before it drained into the river. Today, though, stormwater rushes off those mirror-like impermeable surfaces, picking up debris, fertilizer, and other toxic pollution along the way. The result: a contaminated soup of dirty water draining into the Charles and other rivers, lakes, and streams across New England.

The worst part of the problem? EPA not only knows who the biggest privately owned stormwater dischargers are, it also has the legal authority to hold them accountable. In fact, the Clean Water Act requires known stormwater polluters to obtain a permit for their discharge. But EPA has failed to uphold this basic responsibility.

By not enforcing the law, EPA is leaving cash-strapped cities and towns – and all of us as taxpayers – on the hook for the costs of this damaging pollution. And those costs are big. One of the most harmful pollutants swept into the river with stormwater is phosphorus. Too much phosphorus in the water can lead to massive blue-green algae outbreaks, which are toxic to people, pets, and wildlife. This is just one reason why the Charles is so often subject to closures and advisories for fish contamination and unsafe swimming and boating.

The bottom line is that stormwater pollution is hurting the river, the wildlife that depend on it to be healthy, and the communities that pay when it’s not. A successful outcome to this lawsuit will mean that hundreds of commercial, industrial, and institutional polluters will finally be required to obtain permits. Those permits would not only control the stormwater pollution those businesses can discharge, but also ensure they are paying their fair share of the costs for its management.

The Charles River will never truly be healthy until stormwater pollution – and the industrial offenders responsible for it – are brought under control. It’s time for EPA to step up and enforce the law and set the Charles on the final road to recovery once and for all.

For more background information please see Conservation Law Foundation’s briefing on stormwater pollution in New England, “Closing the Clean Water Gap: Protecting our Waterways by Making All Polluters Pay.”

Winning the Race for Clean Water

May 4, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

I just paddled in from Waltham and boy are my arms tired…Seriously, I know I am not alone among contestants in the 30th Annual Charles River Watershed Association Run of the Charles canoe, kayak, and paddleboard race who downed several ibuprofen after Sunday’s vigorous paddle.  I think I can speak for the entire ten-person CLF team when I say the pain was worth it.  While we didn’t win the race in the literal sense, everyone on the CLF team did feel like winners knowing that we work for an organization who’s longstanding commitment to clean water in the Charles helps make events like the Run of the Charles possible.

My fellow anchorman, Lake Champlain Lakekeeper Louis Porter, kept me digging for dear life as we passed up several boats in the home stretch. Still, I could not help stealing a second here and there to admire the stunning riverscape that unfolded before our bow.  Redwinged blackbirds, swallows, mockingbirds, kingfishers, sparrows of all sorts, and geese floated with and flew over us.  Anglers lined parts of the shore, wetting lines in hopes of a strike.  In some places industrial revolution-era mill buildings that once used the power of the river to make machines run still encroach.  But in other places, you could barely make out signs of civilization through the thicket of shrubs and trees heavy with bright green early season buds.

There was quite a party underway at the finish line.  Folks of all ages, from as far away as Vermont, Maine, New York, and New Jersey had come to the water’s edge to celebrate our relationship with the river.  Numerous food vendors were doing a brisk business, as were the folks who rented out canoes and kayaks to those of us in the race who don’t have boats of our own.

After I caught my breath, I began to reflect on the fact that all the fun and commercial activity that the race had generated wouldn’t be possible without a clean river that is safe for swimming, boating, and fishing.

CLF and our partners like Charles River Watershed Association, whose sponsorship of the race is so important to keeping folks connected to the river, have been working for decades to insure that the river continues to be an attraction to the people of our region.  Thanks in large part to various advocacy campaigns, volunteer cleanups, and court cases to enforce the Clean Water Act over the years, EPA now gives the Charles River a “B” grade on its annual report card of water health.  That means the river was safe for boating 82% of the time last year and for swimming 54% of the time.  While that marks a vast improvement of the “D” grade the river received in 1995, more work remains to be done.  Fun events like the Run of the Charles–and the economic activity it generated in the communities the river flows through–are a great reminder of why CLF is committed to clean water work in the Charles and in countless other waters from the coasts to the mountains. 

CLF Scoop’s Top 10 Blog Posts of 2011

Dec 30, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

It’s been a great year for CLF — and a great year on CLF Scoop. We’ve had lots of great posts by our advocates, staff and volunteers. See below for the most read 10 blog posts published in 2011.

1. Northern Pass: The 5 million ton elephant in Massachusetts’s climate plan 
By Christophe Courchesne

“The Northern Pass transmission project is being pitched by its developers as a clean energy proposal for New Hampshire. As I’ve pointed out before, Northern Pass is aregional proposal with dubious benefits in the Granite State. Unfortunately, the developers’ hollow promises have found an audience further south, in Massachusetts.”

2. RGGI results good for our climate, economy and consumers 
By N. Jonathan Peress

“If you listen to the word on street, or read the headlines, you’ll have heard that our times are hard times. Joblessness remains stubbornly high, markets remain volatile and credit is tight. Most people agree that what we need is a program to creates jobs, generates money, and reinvests each of those in our communities to make them stable, healthier and happier.”

3. My NY Times letter to editor 
By John Kassel 

“It would be hard to find “a tougher moment over the last 40 years to be a leader in the American environmental movement” only if your sole focus is the national debate. All the rest of us — at the local, state and regional levels — have known for years what the nationals are only now realizing: we’ve got to engage people closer to where they live.”

4. Countdown to Shark Week 2012
by Robin Just

“I really do love our New England sharks. But I also love to surf. And as the water temperature at my favorite break is going down, the great whites are heading south. One less thing to worry about as I struggle with frigid water, thick head-to-toe neoprene, and my own personal resolve to surf all year long.”

5. We Can Get There From Here: Maine Energy Efficiency Ballot Initiative 
by Sean Mahoney 

“Maine has a new motto: We can get there from here… As Washington has failed to advance clean energy legislation, and Governor LePage has expressed open hostility to the state’s renewable portfolio standards (RPS), I am reminded of that famous quip from Bert and I: “You can’t get they-ah from he-ah.” For Mainers concerned about Maine’s dependence on expensive, dirty fuels, and sincere in their interest in building a sustainable economy for the years to come, this quip has become a frustrating reality – a reality we can change, with your help.”

6. Love That Dirty Water: Massachusetts Lacks Money, Needs Clean Water 
By HHarnett 

“Massachusetts lacks money and needs clean water. This bind – one in which the state found itself following a June report – has forced a discussion policies that are raising the hackles of Massachusetts residents.”

7. Would Northern Pass Swamp the Regional Market for Renewable Projects? 
By Christophe Courchesne

“With the Northern Pass project on the table, as well as other looming projects andinitiatives to increase New England’s imports of Canadian hydroelectric power, the region’s energy future is coming to a crossroads. The choice to rely on new imports will have consequences that endure for decades, so it’s critical the region use the best possible data and analysis to weigh the public costs and benefits of going down this road. To date, there have been almost no objective, professional assessments of the ramifications.”

8. CLF Negotiates Cool Solution to Get Kendall Power Plant Out of Hot Water (And To Get Hot Water Out of Kendall Power Plant)
By Peter Shelley 

“Today marks a new milestone for CLF in our efforts to clean up the lower Charles River. Concluding a five-year negotiation, involving CLF and the other key stakeholders, the EPA issued a new water quality permit for the Kendall (formerly Mirant Kendall) Power Plant, a natural gas cogeneration facility owned by GenOn Energy. The plant is located on the Cambridge side of the Longfellow Bridge.”

9. What the Keystone XL decision should mean for Northern Pass
By Christophe Courchesne 

“Last week, a major disaster for our climate and our nation’s clean energy future was averted – at least for now – when the Obama administrationannounced that it won’t consider approving the Keystone XL pipeline’s border crossing permit before it reconsiders the Keystone XL pipeline’s environmental impacts and the potential alternatives to the proposal on the table.  For all the reasons that my colleague Melissa Hoffer articulated in her post last week, the Keystone XL victory was a resounding, if limited, triumph with important lessons for environmental and climate advocates across the country as we confront, one battle at a time, the seemingly overwhelming challenge of solving the climate crisis.”

10. When it comes to river restoration, haste makes waste
by Anthony Iarrapino

“In their rush to exploit recovery efforts from Tropical Storm Irene, ideologues who perpetually fight against regulation and science and who posture as the defenders of traditional “Yankee” values are forgetting two important rock-ribbed principles.”

CLF and CRWA Receive EPA Award for Success in Mirant Kendall Case

May 12, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

CLF's Peter Shelley accepts EPA's Environmental Merit Award on behalf of CLF and CRWA. (Photo credit: Emily Long)

Yesterday, CLF and the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA)  received an Environmental Merit Award from the New England office of the U.S. EPA in recognition of their exceptional work on reducing discharge of heated water from the GenOn Kendall Cogeneration Plant (formerly known as Mirant Kendall) in Cambridge, MA. The award was presented at a ceremony at Faneuil Hall in Boston.

Led by CLF Senior Counsel Peter Shelley, the two groups and other key stakeholders, undertook five years of negotiations to reduce the massive amounts of heated water that the plant was discharging into the Charles River, killing fish and destroying the river ecosystem. As a result, in February 2011, EPA issued a new water quality permit that requires the plant to reduce its heat discharge and water withdrawal by approximately 95 percent, and to ensure that any heated discharge does not warm the river enough to cause harm. In addition, the plant will capture most of the heat generated by the plant and distribute it as steam through a new pipeline to be built across the Longfellow Bridge over the next few years, at which point the excess steam will be used to heat buildings in Boston. More >

Clean Rivers Make Cents

Apr 5, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Charles River on a sunny day. Photo Credit:

In times of economic woes, environmental concerns are often pitted against fiscal concerns. Take the recent attacks on the EPA’s power to enforce the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, for example. Republicans in Congress argue that the US cannot handle the economic costs necessary to comply with regulations and that the alleged “job-killing” regulations threaten our economic recovery. However, recent studies are testimony to the inaccuracy of these claims.

In one instance, a $2 million one-time investment in a bike path along the Little Miami River in Cincinnati resulted in $6 million – per year – in economic benefits to the local community. In addition, another $2 million per year is generated from canoe and kayak rentals. So in one year alone, all of the initial investment costs are returned and then some!

But what about restoring a river? Do the high costs associated with such projects also make sense? Another study found that restoring Mill Creek, which runs through a heavily industrialized section of Cincinnati, would result in $100 million increase in property values, a $3.5 million annual increase in recreational use and a $5.5 million increase in property tax revenue. There is now a $1 million investment per year to restore Mill Creek. (You can read more about these studies and others here.)

This research confirms what we learned from cleaning up Boston Harbor and other waterways in New England. Clean rivers are essential to a healthy economy and investments in clean waters can drive economic growth. Even if you do not fish, boat, kayak, or swim, local communities stand to benefit tremendously by investing in the preservation or restoration of their waters.

CRWA Honors CLF’s Champion for the Charles

Apr 4, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

There is no greater honor than to be recognized by your peers for the important work that you do. CLF’s Clean Water and Healthy Forest program director, Christopher Kilian, received such an honor last week at the Charles River Watershed Association’s annual meeting, where CRWA presented him with the 2011 Anne M. Blackburn Award. The award is “presented annually to an individual who has made significant contributions over a career that have resulted in singular improvements for the Charles River, its watershed and our natural environment.”

CLF is extremely proud of the clean water work that Chris and his team have done and continue to do in collaboration with CRWA and numerous other watershed partners. You can read more about this award-winning work elsewhere on our web site (e.g., cleaning up polluted highway runoff and polluted runoff from parking lots and other commercial development, and securing an agreement to prevent super-heated water discharges into the Charles from a nearby power plant). Here, however, I want to share with you some inspiring excerpts from the speech Chris delivered to an appreciative audience at the award ceremony:

We must all stand up for the basic notion of equal access to justice, including the courts, to vindicate the public interest in a healthy environment. I applaud CRWA for its willingness to stand up for clean water, including in the courts when necessary.

But the words of the law ring hollow unless they are connected to people and a place. No organization is more effectively connected to a place on earth than CRWA. Here on the Charles, my own evolving sense that an urban river can be a thriving ecological system and community amenity has been further inspired by the decades of incredible work of CRWA. CRWA’s ideal of blue cities where clean, healthy waters are present even in the densest urban areas, is a vision that is changing the world. Instead of dangerous dumping grounds, our urban waters will cool us as we safely swim in the summer, feed us as we catch fish and shellfish with our children, leave us awestruck in the presence of habitat for nature’s great bird migrations and creatures great and small, and provide a needed release as we sail, boat, and enjoy these great natural amenities.

Some, even government leaders in Massachusetts, say our work to protect clean water is done. They say that clean water is not worth the cost. They say removing raw sewage from our waters (a job that still remains unfinished) is all that the Clean Water Act demanded.  This cannot be the case. It cannot be that the Charles will suffer a fate overrun with toxic metals, raw sewage, and toxic blue green algae blooms. I am confident that with all of you, with CRWA, and CLF working together our waters will not be left degraded. Thank you to CRWA’s supporters, please continue your support. Our work is more important now than ever.

United States Joins CLF Lawsuit Against Boston Water and Sewer Commission

Dec 22, 2010 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Today, the U.S. EPA announced that it will join CLF’s lawsuit against the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) for violations of the Clean Water Act. The suit, filled by CLF in U.S. District Court in February 2010, states that BWSC has failed to control polluted discharges from its storm water system, allowing it to carry raw sewage and excessive levels of bacterial, copper and zinc into Boston’s waterways, threatening the health and well-being of the surrounding communities.

BOSTON, MA  December 22, 2010 – The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) has issued the following statement in response to the motion filed today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stating that it will join CLF’s lawsuit against the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) for violations of the Clean Water Act:

“The complaint against the Boston Water and Sewer Commission documents serious failures in the system that are allowing ongoing unlawful pollution of Boston’s waterways, including the Charles, Mystic and Neponset Rivers, in some the city’s most economically-challenged communities,” said Christopher Kilian, director of CLF’s Clean Water and Healthy Forests program. “The federal government’s entry into this case is a clear indication of the urgency of the matter and the priority EPA places on it. BWSC’s inability to maintain a system that ensures clean water is a violation of the law and an affront to the people of Boston. The United States agrees with CLF that BWSC must make a major commitment now to improve water quality, as other cities have done, and restore these resources to health for everyone’s benefit.” More>>

MA Residents Get the Dialogue Flowing on Stormwater Runoff

Dec 17, 2010 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

In an effort to clean up the Charles River—and as the result of years of CLF advocacy—residents in Bellingham, Franklin, and Milford, MA may soon be obligated to comply with a proposed EPA mandate to reduce phosphorus runoff by 65 percent. As with most important initiatives to restore our environment, implementing this program will cost money, and there are constituencies opposed.  This Milford Daily News article chronicles some of the factors at stake and how residents have reacted to the news.

What’s most exciting about the public dialogue is to see that the discussions have advanced to real thinking about HOW to finance cleanups through stormwater utilities and other fee structures for reducing polluted runoff.  In Massachusetts, polluted runoff is the number one cause of water pollution.  Conversations about how to secure dedicated funding to solve the problem have generally only happened in a few communities under enforcement orders. They had to sort out issues of what’s fair, what’s practical, and what’s most palatable to residents in order to finance the fixes.  Now we’re seeing similar discussions in more communities where new stormwater regulations are proposed. These communities can serve as a model of forward-thinking investment in the clean waters that are critical to a thriving New England.

Learn more about CLF’s work to restore and protect New England’s waterways.