By SCOTT JACKSON
Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch said he would not enter into a consent decree to undertake millions of dollars in repairs to Quincy’s sewer and drain systems after the filing of a federal lawsuit alleging the city is in violation of the Clean Water Act.
The city, Koch said, has spent millions already to address those concerns and he was wary of tying up future funds for a decade or more.
Koch spoke during a City Hall press conference the afternoon of March 15, hours after Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, announced the filing of the lawsuit. Lelling and the Environmental Protection Agency allege the city of Quincy has been allowing sewage and untreated wastewater to discharge into Boston Harbor and adjoining waterways for the past decade.
The mayor said Quincy officials had been meeting with federal regulators to discuss the sewer and drainage concerns and had a tolling agreement to avoid litigation in place for at least 12 months. Quincy officials sought to renew the tolling agreement, but Lelling let it expire March 15, the day the lawsuit was announced, the mayor said.
Koch said the city had spent millions of dollars in the past decade to improve its sewer and drain systems. Because of that, he said he would not enter into a consent decree with the federal government to commit more funds to those issues.
“I don’t believe the EPA has recognized the good work we’ve done. It’s not like we haven’t been doing anything on these issues,” the mayor said. “I am not going to sign something that assigns a penalty to this city because I do not believe we intentionally did anything improper. In fact, quite frankly, the Department of Public Works over the years has gotten awards for the great work that we do in the environment.
“Further…once you sign a consent decree, you put on paper how much the city is going to spend over the next 10 to 15 years without even knowing what our five-year outlook is going to be for revenue going in. I don’t want to be in that position of laying teachers off or firemen off because we have to meet a certain quota assigned by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
The EPA, he said, wanted the city to spend “tens and tens of millions of dollars over the next decade,” to address the issue.
Koch said he was outraged by the lawsuit because of the effort already made by the city.
“Quite frankly I’m outraged by the action. We’ve been at the table for months with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and folks with the EPA working on issues that affect the waterways around the city. The city has spent tens of millions of dollars over the last decade working to solve some of the challenges we face environmentally,” Koch said.
“This city has not ignored this issue. Quite frankly, we’ve been proactive on this issue right along.”
The mayor assured residents the city’s beaches are safe to swim in.
“The folks that have lived here a long time have seen, incrementally, the improvement happening. When we were at Wollaston Beach as kids, you couldn’t see your ankles looking through the water. Today, the clarity is incredible,” Koch said. “The beaches are safe.”
Residents, he added, should continue to avoid the beaches the day after rainstorms.
“There was a rule that we always as kids shared and everyone talked about: The day after heavy rain, you stay out of the water. It was just common sense. Storm drains go out into the water and things get into that storm drain system. I would continue to advise people to do that, but the beaches are cleaner than they ever were,” Koch said.
“The reality is there has been great improvement and we’re continuing down that road, but I believe the lawsuit, and what the EPA wants, is far too aggressive for the city of Quincy and the residents to afford.”
The mayor said he was looking into the possibility of countersuing the EPA. That decision, he said, could be made within the week.
Koch was joined at his press conference by U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch and members of the city’s legal team. City Solicitor Jim Timmins said one issue his office and federal attorneys could not come to an agreement on was monetary penalties to the city, which the Clean Water Act allows. Timmins said the city wanted to put the money towards environmental projects in lieu of paying fines.
“Instead of just paying the money in terms of a fine, we’d spend the money on related projects,” Timmins said. “We felt all along that fining a municipality, particularly in light of the work the mayor has just outlined, was inappropriate. That was a tension point throughout the discussion.”
Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, said the concerns raised in the federal lawsuit are not unique to Quincy; sewer and drain systems nationwide can get overwhelmed during storm events, leading to discharges of untreated wastewater. Lynch said the federal government should work with communities to make necessary improvements.
“The systems that were meant to address the weather patterns of 20 or 30 years ago are being overwhelmed here, but that is not because of the negligence of municipal and state officials. That is because of climate change, so we have to recognize there is a federal role here to help municipalities and help the states build resilience into their systems and upgrade their systems so we can face these new superstorms that are impacting these communities,” Lynch said.
“I’d like to have a partnership. I don’t want the EPA suing the city of Quincy.”
The civil complaint filed by Lelling alleges water quality samples from 2009 through 2018 show Quincy discharged pollutants, including the bacteria commonly known as E. coli and Enterococcus, onto Quincy beaches and tidal areas along the coastline. It also alleges that the water quality samples taken from Quincy Bay, Sagamore Creek, Town Brook, Town River Bay and Furnace Brook from the period 2009 through 2013 showed the discharge of ammonia, surfactants and pharmaceutical compounds, which are indicative of sewage waste. In addition, the complaint alleges Quincy’s sanitary sewer system overflowed on numerous occasions, resulting in discharges of sewage and untreated wastewater.
“The Clean Water Act is designed to protect the waters of the United States for the health and enjoyment of its citizens,” Lelling said in a statement. “This complaint demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that our waters and beaches are protected from discharges such as raw sewage and seeks to require that the city of Quincy take the important and necessary steps to do so.”
“This complaint represents a critical step in the ongoing cleanup of Boston Harbor and nearby urban rivers,” said Deb Szaro, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s New England region. “EPA is committed to ensuring the restoration of Boston Harbor and addressing sewage discharges in local communities continues in order to protect public health and clean water.”
The Clean Water Act provides for monetary daily penalties of $37,500 for each violation that occurred on or before Nov. 2, 2015, and $54,833 for each violation occurring after Nov. 2, 2015, Lelling said. The complaint seeks the recovery of penalties and requests that the court permanently enjoin Quincy from future violations of the Clean Water Act.
Raw sewage overflows and inadequately controlled stormwater discharges from municipal sewer systems introduce a variety of harmful pollutants, including disease causing organisms, metals and nutrients that threaten our communities’ water quality and can contribute to disease outbreaks, beach and shellfish bed closings, flooding, stream scouring, fishing advisories and basement backups of sewage.