Officials from Portsmouth, Dover and Rochester – in their continuing campaign to delay critically important pollution reductions in the Great Bay estuary – have put the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on notice that they intend to file suit over the nitrogen discharge levels being proposed in their wastewater treatment permits.
As part of this campaign of delay, these municipalities have already sued the NH Department of Environmental Services, claiming regulators cannot proceed with requiring certain nitrogen pollution reductions unless and until the State has first engaged in a formal rule-making process. Now, they intend to pursue a similar theory in federal court in a lawsuit against EPA.
This latest move comes on the heels of claims from these same officials that conditions in the Great Bay estuary are improving. Extracting data from the upcoming State of the Estuaries Report to be published by the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership (PREP), and selectively focusing on certain brief time periods, they are attempting to make the case that nitrogen levels are dropping and eelgrass beds are coming back. While variations from year to year can always be expected, the long-term trends have not changed. Total nitrogen loads remain higher than they were in the early 2000’s and eelgrass health continues to decline.
What is even more disturbing is the statement made by Portsmouth, Dover and Rochester officials that eelgrass coverage is on the “rebound in Great Bay and Little Bay.” In arguing that eelgrass conditions are improving, they rely heavily on so-called “eelgrass cover” data – data showing the spatial distribution of eelgrass. While data may show eelgrass cover increasing in some places in the estuary, this can actually be a sign of severe stress. When eelgrass beds are in decline, it is not uncommon for the surviving plants to send out lots of new shoots in attempt to re-establish the bed. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee the new shoots will mature into reproducing adult plants.
Rather than eelgrass cover, eelgrass biomass – which measures the total plant density in a given area – is a much more reliable indicator of ecosystem health. Unfortunately, even though eelgrass cover may occasionally increase in some places, the total biomass of eelgrass in the estuary has decreased dramatically – from 1,807 metric tons in 1996 to 545 tons in 2011. That’s a seventy percent decrease in eelgrass biomass over the course of fifteen years. This unfortunate fact contrasts sharply with the picture of ecosystem health that certain municipal officials are trying to paint.
At a time when we need to be solving the serious pollution problems threatening the Great Bay estuary, it is discouraging to see officials from a small group of municipalities once again attempt to delay needed pollution reductions. One of their own attorneys has publicly acknowledged that a lawsuit against EPA is likely to cost several hundred thousand dollars. That’s on top of the over $800,000 Portsmouth, Dover, Rochester, Exeter and Newmarket (the so-called “Municipal Coalition”) have already spent trying to undermine and delay needed regulatory decision-making. Wouldn’t these funds be better spent reducing pollution from aging and outdated wastewater infrastructure?
Newmarket and Exeter, also members of the Municipal Coalition, have not joined Portsmouth, Dover and Rochester in this latest tactic against EPA and hopefully will decide that cleaning up the estuary is a far more important productive path to follow. Durham and Newington are working to implement constructive solutions to the problems facing the estuary. We hope the Municipal Coalition will follow their lead and end this campaign of delay.