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State environmental officials fail to report critical water data, according to state audit

The Sudbury River Watershed area. The state Department of Environmental Protection has failed to send federal regulators reports about the safety of watersheds in Massachusetts.Brian Feulner

The state Department of Environmental Protection has failed to send federal regulators reports about the safety of watersheds in Massachusetts, according to the state auditor.

The reports, required by the Clean Water Act, are meant to make public information about whether specific watersheds are polluted.

“The failure to provide important information has left the public with a murky picture of water quality in the state,” said Suzanne M. Bump, the state auditor, in a statement. “While the agency has taken some steps to address these issues, I urge them to continue to implement all of our audit recommendations.”

The audit found the department didn’t file the so-called Integrated List of Waters Report, as was required, between July 2017 and July 2019.


It found the department failed to complete the 2016 report until three years after it was due, and that it still hasn’t filed the 2018 report.

The audit also found that environmental officials did not publish data from water quality tests that it had gathered since 2015.

The auditors urged the department to reevaluate its data collection methods, use private labs to test samples, and consider other sources to help report the required data.

State environmental officials defended the department, saying their staff needed the extra time to “ensure that data are fully validated in accordance with federal regulations, and that reports are scientifically accurate and useful.”

In 2016, the department undertook “the largest scope of statewide assessments ever by the agency,” which included impacts on watersheds from shellfish harvesting and recreational uses, they said.

As a result, there were “some delays,” they said.

“The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is committed to safeguarding environmental resources and public health throughout the Commonwealth, and has worked diligently to protect the state’s waters while reducing the use and impact of toxic chemicals,” said Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the department.


“MassDEP will continue to provide the public with scientifically sound and accurate information on the Commonwealth’s water resources and ensure all assessments are fully validated in accordance with federal regulations,” Coletta added.

Julia Blatt, executive director of Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, called it "frustrating" that the department has had so much trouble making the information public.

“The agency has long struggled with a budget that doesn’t match its mission, and we hope this report will help them get more of the support they need to protect our water,” she said.

Some environmental advocates, however, faulted the department for not living up to legal requirements.

“DEP’s excuses don’t pass the straight-face test,” said Kyla Bennett, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in New England, an advocacy group. “Knowing whether a particular Massachusetts water is impaired and safe to use for fishing or recreation goes to the heart of DEP’s mission of protecting human health and the environment.”

David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.