Environment Massachusetts Warns That Buzzards Bay Is At Risk of Increased Pollution

[Boston, MA]— Streams and wetlands in Massachusetts are at risk of increased pollution, according to a report released today by Environment Massachusetts, Courting Disaster: How the Supreme Court Has Broken the Clean Water Act and Why Congress Must Fix It. One case study highlighted in this report is a wetland area around Buzzards Bay that is at risk of loosing Clean Water Act protections. The report also provides 30 case studies demonstrating how the federal Clean Water Act is broken and calling on Representative Capuano to fix it. 

“Polluters are trying to break open the floodgates to dumping unlimited pollution into Massachusetts waterways,” said Eleanor Fort, Preservation Associate with Environment Massachusetts. “Representative Capuano must shut the door on dirty special interests and protect Buzzards Bay and all states waters.” 

The case studies in the report indicate that streams, rivers, wetlands, lakes and other waters across the nation are now more vulnerable to pollution and destruction. These cases provide examples of the estimated 15,000 water bodies that federal agencies have declared unprotected in the last eight years. Today’s report is largely based on information obtained through district offices of the Army Corps of Engineers, or from Corps headquarters, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Justice.

The case studies include the wetlands in the Buzzards Bay watershed that are at risk of loosing Clean Water Act protections. 

-Buzzards Bay is an estuary 28 miles long and eight miles wide that connects to Cape Cod Bay through the Cape Cod Canal. The bay supports many species of shellfish and finfish. The wetland areas filter out pollution and excess nutrients in the water before it flows into the bay.

-Charles Johnson, a cranberry farmer, filled 50 acres of wetlands without a permit to create 3 cranberry bogs. In 1999, the EPA sued under the Clean Water Act. A district court found the Johnsons liable of violating the law. The Johnsons were fined and ordered to restore 25 acres of the impacted wetlands.

-The Johnsons appealed the order after SWANCC on the grounds that the Clean Water Act no longer protected the wetlands. EPA originally won in a 2-1 decision issued prior to the Rapanos decision. After Rapanos, the court reconsidered and vacated its earlier ruling, deciding to send the case back to the district court for further fact finding. 

-Now, more than ten years after the initial enforcement action, the case is again before trial court and it remains uncertain whether the Johnsons will ever have to restore the destroyed wetlands. 

“Recent rollbacks to the Clean Water Act have swept away 30 years of protection for some of Massachusetts’s most important waters and waterways across the country,” said Fort. “Polluters have been given a green light to ignore the Clean Water Act, even when it may destroy a wetland or affect our drinking water supplies.”

The EPA has estimated that some 20 million acres of wetlands in the continental United States may lose federal protection because of the rollbacks to the Clean Water Act. In addition, tens of thousands of miles of seasonal and headwater streams, and countless numbers of small lakes, and ponds could be left without federal protection from water pollution. 

Pollution of headwater streams and wetlands leads to greater pollution for downstream communities, and threatens our drinking water supplies. According to the EPA, 52% of Massachusetts’ waterways are at risk of loosing Clean Water Act protections. That same water provides drinking water 4.7 million people in Massachusetts.

“Stripping protections from such a large percentage of upstream water sources could have a significant impact on our downstream tap water quality,” said James McCaffrey, Director of Massachusetts Sierra Club. “Protecting our headwater streams is critical to safeguarding our drinking water. It's alarming to see Massachusetts rank near the top with 75% of our population at risk."

In June, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee passed a bill, the Clean Water Restoration Act, which would restore the Clean Water Act. Now it is up to the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee to take up a similar bill. 

“To be effective, the Clean Water Act needs to address all water pollution sources,” said Cynthia Liebman, Staff Attorney for Conservation Law Foundation. “The Supreme Court has muddied the waters in recent decisions and as a result, government agencies and industry have been left with great uncertainty and waterways are at risk of increased pollution. Congress needs to act quickly to clarify that the Clean Water Act applies broadly to all waterways.”

Volunteers are collecting petition signatures to urge members of Congress to support restoring the Clean Water Act. “As a citizen based organization, we know the importance that our own voices have in the political process,” said Aaron Gunderson, Citizen Outreach Director with Environment Massachusetts. 

Fort concluded, "We thank Congressman Capuano for co-sponsoring the Clean Water Restoration Act in 2007. His continued leadership on clean water will be crucial to help pass legislation this year that will protect all our waterways and restore the Clean Water Act.” 

The report is available at www.environmentmassachusetts.org/reports/preservation

People who want to get involved can sign the petition at http://www.environmentmassachusetts.org/action/atlantic-legacy