A draft water pollution permit for a regional wastewater treatment plant on the Connecticut River in Springfield, Massachusetts, is now back in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Springfield plant management gave the EPA dozens of pages of comments and concerns about the permit, saying the permit would hinder the facility from using its full capacity to clean wastewater -- including taking in raw sewage, which during heavy rains overflows into the river from an aging "combined sewer overflow" system.
At issue is the amount of nitrogen -- a nutrient found in urine -- allowed in Springfield's discharge into the Connecticut River. The nutrient is the cause of animal and plant die-offs in Long Island Sound, where the Connecticut River flows. Nitrogen is not a pollutant in the river's fresh water, which runs through four states.
In 2016, Connecticut Fund For The Environment demanded EPA do something about Springfield, including revise the plant's permit.
The plant is at the very beginning of building a new system to handle the overflows.
But Springfield sewer and water's executive director, Josh Schimmel, said the draft permit doesn't factor in its growing capacity to handle more sewage. The permit, he said, relies on the total maximum daily load of nitrogen the Long Island Sound can handle from using data Schimmel doesn't trust.
After so long, he said, EPA has issued "pretty much a flat permit."
"We're doing a $100 million project [to start]... but then we're getting a permit that's potentially requiring us to spend tens of millions of dollars to now reduce the nitrogen that we're bringing to the treatment plant," Schimmel said.
EPA officials say the draft permit does not require Springfield to spend more money.
"This permit does not tell Springfield to make a major investment in treatment facilities," said Ken Moraff of EPA New England.
Moraff said Springfield should use and optimize its existing treatments.
"You hold nitrogen at least steady, while we figure out whether there needs to be additional reductions and where those reductions come from," Moraff said.
Springfield is not alone with its aging infrastructure. The city of Hartford has a $500 million project underway to help keep untreated water out of the Connecticut River. Combined sewer overflow systems are a major water pollution concern for approximately 772 cities in the U.S., according to the EPA.
Yet wastewater treatment plants are not off-base with the concern that they're doing more than their fair share, said Andrew Fisk of the Connecticut River Conservancy. He says that's because treatment plants are not the only source of nitrogen -- they're just the most measurable source.
Other sources -- like septic tanks, farm field runoff, and atmospheric contributions -- add up to a higher load of nitrogen than the amount that lands in the river from treated wastewater. But they're much harder to track.
"Communities are looking at the ways they can develop, so that they don't increase the amount of water going into wastewater plants which may be at capacity," Fisk said.
The permit for Springfield's plant is expected to be finalized within the next few months.
Correction: An earlier version of this report included an incorrect name for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. It is not the Connecticut Environmental Fund.