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MWRA fails to protect water quality in Boston Harbor, lawsuit alleges

Pumps inside the MWRA Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority has repeatedly failed to enforce requirements that industrial facilities pretreat waste water containing elevated levels of cyanide, lead, mercury, and other toxic substances that were ultimately discharged into Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The Conservation Law Foundation alleges that the agency failed to enforce those requirements more than 200 times, allowing large amounts of toxic waste water to be pumped into Massachusetts Bay from the MWRA’s Deer Island treatment plant.

“MWRA plays a vital role in keeping our local waters clean and safe, but the data uncovers significant problems in how it responds to unsafe levels of pollution,” said Heather Govern, CLF’s vice president of clean air and water. “When the agency doesn’t do its job, sewage loaded with toxic industrial pollution threatens the decades of progress we’ve made in cleaning up Boston Harbor.”

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The foundation alleges that some of the nearly 5,000 hospitals, manufacturers, and other industrial facilities that send waste water to Deer Island have regularly violated federal limits on a range of pollutants, including copper, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and zinc.

Those pollutants, when not properly treated, can harm human health as well as damage water quality, fish, and wider marine ecosystems, the foundation alleged.

Agency officials said they are rigorously monitoring the waste water from industrial facilities.

“MWRA is proud of the work it has done (and continues to do) to keep Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay clean and can only assume that CLF’s allegations are based on a misunderstanding of how the program works,” Ria Convery, an MWRA spokeswoman, said in a statement.

She noted that the MWRA has worked closely over the years with the foundation, which often sued state and federal agencies in its effort to clean up Boston Harbor.

“It is unfortunate that CLF has apparently chosen to abandon that cooperative approach and instead file this new suit, ignoring MWRA’s offer to answer CLF’s questions and work together to enable CLF to better understand just how effective MWRA’s pretreatment program is,” she said.

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She described the agency’s pretreatment program as a “model for other programs around the country,” noting that the US Environmental Protection Agency awarded its work inspecting, permitting, and sampling the waste water it receives from industrial facilities.

Convery said the Deer Island treatment plant has had no discharge permit violations for more than 15 years.

“Boston Harbor has never been cleaner, and ongoing monitoring shows that there have been no adverse effects on Massachusetts Bay,” she said.

Foundation lawyers, however, said there are significant gaps in the information they have received from the agency. They said they expect to find additional violations once the MWRA provides all the information the foundation has requested.

“Unfortunately, discussions with MWRA since the notice of intent to sue was sent did not alleviate CLF’s fears that there are serious problems with MWRA’s enforcement program,” Govern said.

The lawsuit alleges that since 2017 the MWRA has taken no enforcement action in response to 70 violations of pretreatment requirements by “significant” industrial users.

Of 123 instances of “significant noncompliance” between 2017 and 2021, the MWRA issued only 40 notices to the offenders, violating their requirements, the lawsuit alleges. In that time, the agency also failed to escalate its enforcement for repeated violations at least 46 times and collected less than $200,000 in fines.

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The agency also failed to report violations to the EPA, according to the lawsuit.

“Failure to include information in [its required reports on industrial waste] makes it impossible for EPA or the public to verify that MWRA” has complied with enforcement requirements, the foundation alleged.

Such failures, they further alleged, “are representative of MWRA’s normal practices and operations and are evidence of a pattern and practice of failing to take enforcement actions” against noncompliant industrial users.

The foundation asked the court to fine the agency more than $50,000 a day per violation until it proves it is complying with the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.


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