Really, Belmont? Another year, another failing grade for a key point in Belmont’s drainage system, which continues to dump stray sewage into the region’s waterways. The town’s inability to clean up its drains has downstream implications — literally — and, unless it’s quickly remedied, the Environmental Protection Agency should step in.
After all, the town has few valid excuses. It has money: Coincidentally, Belmont just put $5.2 million into repairs for a municipal swimming pool that were completed last year. If Belmontonians deserve clean swimming water, what about the town’s neighbors? It’s had time, too: The town has been in serious violation of its federal stormwater permit for the last three years.
Yet Winn’s Brook, which feeds into Alewife Brook and the Mystic River, again got an F in the newest score card on the Mystic River watershed, compiled by the EPA and the Mystic River Watershed Association. The grade is based on bacteria counts, and EPA tests confirm the human source of the bacteria by also looking for the presence of pharmaceuticals like acetaminophen. In other words, unless the ducks in Belmont take Tylenol, the bacteria in Winn’s Brook is coming from human excrement.
More than likely, illegal connections to storm drains and leakage from sewage lines are causing the contamination. Belmont could solve those problems by cracking down on illegal hookups or improving its infrastructure. Many municipalities in Massachusetts contend with old and leaky storm drains, but that’s not an excuse. Cambridge, for instance, has spent about $100 million upgrading its stormwater system.
Stragglers are one of the inherent problems with relying on individual municipalities to solve regional environmental problems. Geographic quirks in this case also mean the town may feel little pressure to improve: The outfall at Winn’s Brook is located only a few yards upstream from Cambridge, meaning few Belmont residents experience any direct impact from the dirty drains.
But the EPA has some recourse: It could refer the town to the Justice Department for possible sanctions. That’s a last resort. But it can work: In 2012, the EPA took Suffolk Downs to task for runoff from horse manure entering Sales Creek, which feeds into Belle Isle Inlet. After paying a $1.25 million fine, the track cleaned up its act, and the water quality in the inlet is measurably better in the latest score card.
It shouldn’t require that kind of federal intervention to prod Belmont into action. But one way or another, it’s reasonable to expect its water quality rankings to start improving — now.