Metro

State agrees with Trump administration to delay long-awaited water pollution rules

Algae bloom on the Charles River.
Environmental Protection Agency, file 2007
Algae bloom on the Charles River.

A landmark plan to curb pollution in lakes, rivers, and streams throughout Massachusetts that was to take effect last month after nearly a decade of negotiations among local, state, and federal authorities has been delayed for at least another year. And it could be at risk of being weakened or eliminated by the Trump administration.

This week, state officials said they would follow the lead of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which announced earlier this summer that it would not implement the plan until at least next July.

State officials had the option of pressing ahead, which would have required 260 Massachusetts municipalities to reduce storm water runoff into their storm drains, steps that some cities and towns said could cost them millions of dollars a year and thousands of hours of their employees’ time.

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The plan, which seeks to ensure that municipalities comply with the federal Clean Water Act, would require towns and cities to remove illegal sewer connections to storm drains, improve street sweeping, increase public education, and take other steps to cut the volume of storm water entering sewer systems.

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Environmental advocates expressed deep disappointment with the state’s decision.

“When the federal government abdicates its responsibility to protect the environment, it’s time for the state to step up,” said Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, an advocacy group in Boston.

“But instead, the state has stepped back by refusing to stand up for clean water in Massachusetts. Storm water is the biggest pollution problem we have, and it’s the reason why more than half of our rivers and streams don’t meet water quality standards. It’s awful that the state is not leading on this.”

In 2014, the EPA estimated that urban municipalities would be required to spend between $1.1 million and $2.5 million to comply with regulations under the so-called National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. Suburban and rural towns would pay less.

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Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, has worried that some local governments would struggle to pay for it without slashing services or increasing local taxes.

He called the rules “an unfunded mandate” and said the Baker administration made the right decision in delaying the plan. He said municipalities may have sued the state had officials implemented the regulations.

“The communities are going to need the resources to be able to do this, and our most significant concern has been a lack of any federal resources to back up the requirements,” Beckwith said.

At the end of June, EPA officials announced they were delaying the rules, issued by what they call an MS4 permit, saying they were complying with requests from municipalities such as Lowell and Franklin that have opposed the plan.

“EPA finds justice requires postponing . . . the Massachusetts permit for one year pending judicial review,” wrote Deborah Szaro, the agency’s acting regional administrator in New England. “Postponing the effective date . . . should give EPA ample time to determine what, if any, changes are appropriate in the permit and to determine next steps.”

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The delay follows sweeping changes at the EPA since President Trump was inaugurated that have included a raft of decisions to roll back or block environmental policies issued during the Obama administration.

In June, for example, the EPA suggested it would reverse a decision that would have required General Electric Co. to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the Housatonic River, which the company polluted for decades from its plant in the Berkshires. As with its plan to reduce water pollution, the agency has called for reopening negotiations that might reduce the scope of the regulations and their costs.

It was unclear until Tuesday whether the state would implement the storm water rules on its own. That was when Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, announced the delay at a meeting of the Massachusetts Statewide Municipal Stormwater Coalition in Worcester.

In an e-mail to the Globe, DEP officials said the agency’s decision to “conform its implementation schedule to the federal schedule” was “consistent with longstanding administrative practice.”

They said they felt free to do that because “no legal challenges to the change in the federal schedule have been brought.”

Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the department, said more than 50 of the state’s municipalities have supported DEP’s decision.

“In an effort to avoid duplicative or contradictory requirements with federal permit requirements, MassDEP has historically acted in concert with federal permit requirements,” he wrote. “As EPA has already stated that it won’t act for a year, requiring cities and towns to file [notice of plans] now with the state would be arbitrary.”

Massachusetts, one of just four states that do not directly oversee how much pollution enters its waters, is now seeking such authority from the EPA. State officials say that would give Massachusetts more independence in regulating water quality.

The overall goal of the plan is to reduce elevated levels of phosphorus, nitrogen, metals, sediment, disease-causing bacteria, and other pollutants carried by storm water into rivers, including the Charles, Mystic, Neponset, Shawsheen, and other state waters.

Ultimately, environmental advocates say, it will mean fewer days that beaches and shellfish beds are closed due to high bacteria levels.

The plan would require municipalities to monitor what flows from their pipes into local water sources during dry and wet weather; inspect key manholes within 10 years to ensure they’re not spreading pollutants; and draft plans to detect and deal with illicit pollution within one year.

It also would require some communities and encourage others to improve the designs of their buildings and drainage systems. Environmental advocates lamented that it will now take at least another year for municipalities to take action to curb the pollution.

Ian Cooke, executive director of the Neponset River Watershed Association in Canton, said he worries the Trump administration might water down the rules or eliminate them.

Instead of allowing municipalities 10 years to comply with the rules, the EPA could give them 20 years. The agency could also relax the requirements for how cities and towns search for leaks.

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