Bid to set limits on Eel River pollution ends

A 15-year case launched to protect Plymouth’s Eel River appears to have come to an end, after the plaintiffs missed a deadline to appeal a state court ruling allowing a permit for the town’s sewer treatment plant to stand.

The suit was originally filed in 1997 by the Eel River Watershed Association to force state environmental regulators to take stronger action against ground-water pollution from the new sewer treatment plant the town of Plymouth was building within the watershed.

A Superior Court judge ruled against the suit earlier this year, stating the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection had addressed all its arguments and petitions.


Although the Eel River group believes the court made errors in its decision, the group was unable to find a pro-bono attorney to continue its case before the Sept. 25 appeal deadline.

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“We ran out of money,” Mettie Whipple, the group’s president, said last week, explaining the decision not to appeal.

She said group members had already spent more than $60,000 of their own money on lawyers and studies to support their contention that the state’s own water protection regulations require it to determine the upper limit for how much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution the Eel River could bear without serious degradation. These “load limits” should be established first, the group said, before the state issued discharge permits to the sewer plant or any other developer in the watershed.

Without established load limits, the Eel River group argued, residential and other developments can be granted waste-water discharge permits without regard to the total amounts of pollution discharged into the watershed. Nitrogen and other waste-water pollutants stimulate weed growth in rivers, using up oxygen, killing fish, and degrading water quality.

The town’s sewer plant discharges a portion of its treated waste water into the ground from its location at Camelot Drive. Town officials, however, said they have established their own “nutrients management plan’’ for the Eel River watershed to protect the environment.


Plymouth’s public works director, Jonathan Berber, said recently the town has been diligent in meeting requirements of its plan to limit nutrient discharges into the watershed.

“We need to manage the treatment plant so it meets the needs of the community and remain proactive in terms of sustaining the environment now and into the future,” Berber said.

Berber also pointed out that the sewer plant limits its discharges into Plymouth Harbor to protect water quality there. “The town is committed to protecting the Eel River Watershed and Plymouth Harbor,” he said.

Whipple said last week her group believed it had grounds to appeal the Superior Court ruling because the court stated that the DEP issued a revised discharge permit to the town sewer plant, “which greatly reduced the quantity of nitrogen discharged into the ground water.”

In fact, Whipple said, the DEP revised the discharge permit for The Pinehills residential development, but did not revise the sewer plant’s permit to reduce the quantity of nitrogen it discharges.


Whipple said that despite persistent efforts over a lengthy period her group failed “to get justice” because “we never got a ruling on the main issue” — the group’s contention that environmental regulators need to establish an upper pollution load limit for the Eel River.

Robert Knox can be reached at