CLF Moves To Force Greater Protections From Portsmouth’s Peirce Island Wastewater Plant

Brian Barth

Colin Durrant
CLF Communications Director
(617) 850-1722

Portsmouth, NH (May 16, 2007) The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) has filed a legal appeal of the federal discharge permit recently issued for the City of Portsmouth’s Peirce Island sewage treatment plant. The plant, which discharges an average of 4.5 million gallons of wastewater per day into the Piscataqua River (making it the largest sewage treatment plant in the NH Seacoast region), has been operating with enhanced “primary” levels of sewage treatment consisting only of the removal and settling of solids, and disinfection under a rarely used waiver granted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1985. The waiver exempted the plant from the Clean Water Act’s requirement that sewage treatment plants operate with more protective “secondary” treatment, which includes biological processes that further reduce the discharge of total suspended solids and oxygen-demanding materials—making the water cleaner before discharge to the river.

Earlier this year, CLF attorneys successfully convinced the EPA to deny a new waiver for the Peirce Island plant, and to require secondary treatment. However, in an appeal filed with the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board on May 14, CLF argues that the new permit lacks important limits on nitrogen pollution. Nitrogen levels in the Great Bay estuary have been rising dramatically, leading to an increasing presence of nuisance algae and declines in critically important eelgrass habitat within the estuary. Eelgrass serves as an essential breeding and nursery ground for numerous fish species.

“The Great Bay estuary now has nitrogen levels similar to those that led to the collapse of the Chesapeake Bay,” said CLF staff attorney Tom Irwin. “The time is now to address the problem of nitrogen discharges from wastewater plants such as Portsmouth’s. Otherwise, it will be too late, and we could find ourselves in a situation in which the Great Bay ecosystem crashes.”

CLF’s appeal also seeks prompt implementation of secondary treatment, noting that the plant – one of only a handful of sewage treatment plants in the United States still providing only primary treatment –has been operating under an outdated waiver from secondary treatment that was granted more than twenty years ago.

“The Great Bay estuary is one of New Hampshire’s greatest natural treasures,” said Melissa Hoffer, Director of CLF’s New Hampshire Advocacy Center. “EPA took an important step forward in requiring secondary treatment. Now EPA must require speedy implementation of new technology and reductions in harmful nitrogen. CLF stands ready to work with both the City and the EPA to achieve these important goals.”