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Mass. can enforce clean water rules abandoned by feds

The Mystic River on June 30, 2017, turned green by harmful algal bloom.Photo by Jack Bitney

When the Trump administration abruptly backed out of new clean water standards, slated to take effect in Massachusetts on July 1, it handed Governor Charlie Baker an opportunity to lead. Baker’s administration has the authority to hold polluters to the original requirements, and would be wise to take it. The standards, which apply to municipal governments that dump sewage and other pollutants into waterways, are overdue protections that will make Massachusetts cleaner and safer.

In 2016, after years of laborious preparation, the state and federal government jointly announced new rules for stormwater systems in the Commonwealth. Municipal drainage is the main source of water pollution in modern-day Massachusetts: Storms wash pollutants down drains and into rivers, or leaky sewage pipes leech into the stormwater pipes, leading to algae blooms, stinky rivers, and unsafe swimming conditions. Both state and federal laws require towns to reduce their discharges, and the joint rule was designed to implement both.


Now, though, the Trump administration has delayed federal enforcement of the rule for a year, and some clean water advocates worry the delay is a prelude to watering it down. The identical state rule, though, remains in place. Baker’s Department of Environmental Protection should enforce it without interruption — both because it’s the right thing to do, and to prove that DEP is up to the enhanced oversight of water pollution that Baker has sought for it.

The rule — known among waste-management aficionados as the MS4 permit — requires municipalities to step up monitoring of pollutants, sweep streets, and fix sewage systems if they’re leaking into storm drains. While most municipalities are moving to comply, the town of Franklin and city of Lowell have sued. Paying for stormwater updates will deprive them of funds for other municipal needs (like paying for lawsuits against the EPA, apparently). The lawsuits provided the pretext for Washington to freeze implementation of the permit statewide.


Baker’s DEP, though, could hold municipalities to the existing deadlines under the state permit, essentially rendering the federal government’s position irrelevant. The state normally tries to keep state rules in harmony with federal requirements so that towns aren’t pulled in different directions by regulators, and that’s a good approach under a normal EPA. But the Trump administration isn’t owed that kind of deference, and it’s hard to imagine much political risk for the governor if his administration goes its own way now. As Ian Cooke of the Neponset River Watershed Association puts it, “Not too many people would say, ‘Yeah, I’m in favor of sewer leaks.’ ”

Moreover, strong enforcement would strengthen the governor’s case for transferring oversight of water standards to the DEP. For the last two years, the administration has sought to give the state agency control over issuing water quality permits, taking over that responsibility from the EPA. Environmental groups have expressed skepticism, fearing that local regulators will be less likely than the federal government to crack down on municipalities with poor environmental records.

Now that the Trump administration has gone AWOL, though, Baker’s DEP has a chance to show what it would do with the sort of authority the governor wants. And, more important, by stepping into the void left by the federal government, it has a chance to deliver the cleaner streams and rivers that all Massachusetts residents deserve.