The Charles River is one of New England’s most iconic waterways – it also may be our most notorious thanks to its history as one of the dirtiest rivers in the country. Decades of efforts to clean up the river have brought some gains, yes, but the Charles is still far from achieving the water quality rating that will make it safe for swimming and fishing year-round.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Environmental Protection Agency knows what is causing the Charles’ dirty water problems today – and it has the power to fix those problems. But instead, it has botched its legal obligation to protect the Charles and the wildlife and people that depend on it.
That’s why Conservation Law Foundation, with co-plaintiff the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA), are now suing EPA for this failure to enforce stormwater pollution standards in the Charles River Watershed. At the same time, we’re moving forward with a similar suit over several water bodies in Rhode Island that have also been neglected by EPA.
Letting Polluters Slide
As a mandatory requirement of the Clean Water Act, EPA should have been notifying certain commercial, industrial, and institutional operations responsible for significant stormwater runoff that they must obtain permits for their polluted discharges. But the agency has let these polluters slide – leaving the Charles and these Rhode Island waterways to be bombarded by dangerous pollutants and putting the health of people and wildlife at risk.
Our fight to clean up these ailing waterways actually began nearly a year ago, when, in April of 2015, we first sued EPA over this issue. Later that summer, we voluntarily withdrew our suit in hopes of reaching a negotiated solution with EPA. After unsuccessful attempts to find common ground with the agency, we are re-launching our legal battle.
Stormwater pollution poses the greatest threat to New England’s waterways today. Until we see meaningful action from EPA in holding polluters accountable for their dirty stormwater discharges, we will continue to push these lawsuits forward.
The High Cost of Doing Nothing
The results of EPA’s inaction are clear to anyone who lives near the Charles or the Rhode Island waterways. During rain or snowmelt, water drains from strip-mall parking lots and industrial parks, picking up pollutants and debris that are then dumped into our waterways. Here in Massachusetts, polluted stormwater runoff leaves the Charles subject to frequent health advisories warning people and their pets to avoid contact with the water.
In the summer of 2015, a major outbreak of toxic blue-green algae covered the Charles’ Lower Basin from the Weld Boathouse to the New Charles River Dam. These massive blooms are becoming more and more common on the Charles, even as a growing body of evidence, including a recent study released by the Royal Society of London, raises red flags about the serious health consequences of exposure to these blooms.
In Rhode Island, according to EPA’s own documentation, stormwater pollution has caused especially severe damage to the waters of Aquidneck Island and Mashapaug Pond. Aquidneck Island, located near Newport, has seen many more beach closures as a result of polluted stormwater. One of the island’s drinking water sources has also been contaminated. The waters of Mashapaug Pond, located in South Providence, have not been safe for drinking, fishing, or swimming in decades.
A Clear Solution to a Dirty Problem
Frankly, it’s shameful that the very preventable problem of stormwater pollution has been allowed to continue unchecked by the very agency charged with protecting the health of our nation’s waterways. A successful outcome to these lawsuits will mean that hundreds of commercial, industrial, and institutional polluters will finally be required to obtain permits that will not only control how much stormwater they can discharge, but also ensure they are paying their fair share of the costs for its management.
The Charles River, Aquidneck Island, Mashapaug Pond – these waterways will never be truly healthy until stormwater pollution, and the industrial offenders responsible for it, are brought under control. CLF and CRWA are fighting to force EPA to step up and enforce the law, so these waterways can finally be set on the path to health once and for all.
For more background information and to learn more about our New England-wide efforts to curb stormwater pollution, please see our briefing, Closing the Clean Water Gap: Protecting our Waterways by Making All Polluters Pay.