New Hampshire's Great Bay, Nitrogen, and the Limits of Technology

Posted on December 26, 2012 by Gregory H. Smith

As the Clean Water Act celebrates its 40th anniversary, it has ignited a controversy in New Hampshire with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.  In the law’s early days,  publicly owned treatment works (“POTWs”), mandated and financed in large part with federal funds, were viewed as the “good guys” in the national effort to restore quality in receiving water bodies into which raw sewage was being discharged.  That view of POTWs seems to have changed in New Hampshire, at least as relates to the State’s largest saltwater estuary; the Great Bay.  Faced with the potential need to finance significant POTW upgrades or reconstruction, New Hampshire POTWs are challenging EPA’s permitting decisions in the courts, through administrative channels and in the press.

As we know, POTWs are regulated through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permits that monitor and control a variety of effluent criteria.  Interestingly, however, New Hampshire was and remains one of the few states that has not obtained authority to issue new and renewed NPDES permits.  Because of this status as a non-delegated state, dischargers in New Hampshire with expiring permits must apply to the federal government for renewal.  As environmental regulation has progressed, however, and as federal funds have diminished or disappeared, POTWs and the towns and sewer districts that operate them have found themselves opposed to the EPA’s efforts to impose stricter standards  to address pollutants that were not of primary concern when the POTWs were constructed and initially permitted.

In New Hampshire, this is seen vividly in NPDES renewal efforts EPA is undertaking for several POTWs that discharge under expired and expiring permits, directly or indirectly, into the Great Bay estuary located on the State’s coast.  Once a rich habitat for oysters, eel grass and other sea life, Great Bay is now stressed by a variety of factors including both point and non-point discharges as well as other environmental factors.   At the heart of the controversy  in New Hampshire is EPA’s intention to reduce effluent limitations for nitrogen to as low as three parts per million (the limits of technology) in order to ameliorate nitrogen related problems in Great Bay.  From the municipalities and POTWs perspective, the costs to comply with these new lower limits are exorbitant.  One widely cited study estimates that, for the Great Bay estuary POTWs to comply with the new nitrogen limit, it will cost in excess of one half billion dollars in capital,operation and maintenance expenses.  Those costs will, of course, be passed along to a relatively small population of ratepayers. 

A coalition of communities with affected POTWs has joined forces in response, proposing “adaptive management programs” combining somewhat lower discharge limits with comprehensive non-point controls aimed together at achieving EPA’s stated goals.  It is unclear at this time whether those efforts will be successful.  The coalition communities certainly have in mind the experiences in Chesapeake Bay, or closer to home in neighboring and similarly non-delegated Massachusetts, where EPA is using its  Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require permits in the Charles River watershed.  EPA has been public with its view that the Charles River RDA program may become a model for watersheds elsewhere in New England and nationwide.  It is thought that an adaptive management program as proposed by New Hampshire’s coalition communities would obviate the need to utilize RDA for Great Bay, but that issue remains to be addressed in the future.