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EPA Takes Action to Protect Greater Boston's Drinking Water; Pushes for Further Watershed Protection and Filtration Plant

Release Date: 12/09/1997
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming (Press Office) (617) 918-1008

BOSTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Administrator John P. DeVillars today announced the agency has taken significant steps to provide greater protection to Metropolitan Boston's drinking water supply. Specifically, EPA is seeking a federal court order to require the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) and the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) to construct a drinking water filtration plant and to guarantee further land acquisition and other watershed protection steps necessary to enhance protection of the Wachusett Reservoir, a critical water source for the MWRA's drinking water supply. EPA has formally requested that the U.S. Department of Justice file the case in U.S. District Court in Boston.

Citing widespread non-compliance with drinking water standards and lengthy delays in building a filtration plant, DeVillars said legal action is necessary to ensure safe and healthy drinking water for the two million residents served by the MWRA water system.

"The MWRA water system has been consistently out of compliance and it will remain out of compliance for years to come. And a key element of the MWRA strategy for coming into compliance - increased chlorination - has been linked to increased cancer risks," DeVillars said. "Filtration and watershed protection offer a more prudent and more certain path to what should be a fundamental right in this country - safe, healthy drinking water."

Of the 235 water suppliers in America serving populations of more than 100,000, 224 systems - or 95 percent - already have filtration in place.  (click here for chart) Note: You will need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader® to view and print PDF documents. Please make sure you have the most recent version of Adobe Acrobat® for the best results.

"It's time for the MWRA to step up to the plate and do what virtually every other water system in America has done," DeVillars said. "The cost to homeowners - the equivalent of a gallon or two of bottled water each month - is a bargain and a small price to pay for safe, healthy drinking water."   (click here for chart)

In a letter to MWRA Executive Director Douglas MacDonald, DeVillars indicated his desire to reach agreement with the MWRA and the MDC on the scope and timing of further land acquisition, the filtration plant, and other steps necessary to protect Metropolitan Boston's drinking water. DeVillars proposed that expeditious settlement negotiations take place prior to the filing of any complaint in court by Department of Justice.

"It is our hope that intensive negotiations will lead to an outcome that all parties will find both responsible and acceptable. This must include an expeditious and binding schedule for further land acquisitions and other steps necessary to protect the Wachusett Reservoir and for the completion of the filtration plant," DeVillars said.

Today's action was prompted by both substantial non-compliance with current drinking water standards as well as repeated delays by the MWRA and the MDC in implementing a 1993 state enforcement order addressing the MWRA's violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The federal law required filtration by 1993.

The state's enforcement order required that the filtration plant be completed by the year 2001. The start-up date was delayed this past September when the MWRA obtained state approval to delay completion of the plant by two years, to December 2003. Then, on Oct. 1, the MWRA filed a request with the DEP for an outright waiver of the filtration requirement.

Meanwhile, the MWRA and MDC also are behind schedule on a timetable for implementing watershed protection steps that have been identified by the state as being critical for protecting the Wachusett Reservoir. The MWRA has also delayed completion of the important Norumbega Reservoir covered storage facility by four years, to December 2004.

EPA indicated that the MWRA's own sampling data shows substantial non-compliance with current drinking water standards. Among the violations:   (click here for chart)

    • Federal law requires that water supply systems kill at least 99.9 percent of Giardia, a common waterborne parasite that causes stomach illnesses in humans (particularly the elderly and young children). Under current methods, the MWRA kills only eight percent of Giardia. Moreover, since 1994, MWRA testing has repeatedly found Giardia in the Wachusett watershed.
    • Since 1995, half of the MWRA's 28 Boston-area communities exceeded bacteria standards, specifically a requirement stating that no more than five percent of samples collected in a given month show the presence of total coliform bacteria. This August in Stoneham, for example, 68 percent of the water samples collected were coliform positive. In June 1996, 35 percent of the samples collected in Boston were coliform positive.
    • In order to avoid filtration, state and federal regulations require compliance with total coliform bacteria standards in at least 11 of the previous 12 months. The MWRA exceeded the coliform standards four of 12 months in 1995, three of 12 months in 1996 and three of the 11 months so far in 1997.
    • Since 1991, MWRA water has frequently exceeded state and federal action level standards for lead. Since Jan. 1, 1997, the MWRA has violated the Safe Water Drinking Act by not implementing necessary corrosion controls for reducing lead levels in water.
MWRA, in pushing for a filtration waiver, contends that its watershed protection program and plans for increased chlorine disinfection will assure the safety of the Wachusett water supply. However, the EPA points out that the MWRA has been consistently out of compliance with state and federal standards; will continue to remain out of compliance for many years to come; and that the greatly increased use of chlorine, which would continue to be necessary if filtration is not put in place, would increase the formation of disinfection byproducts (DBPs) which have been linked to cancer risks. DBPs will be the subject of future EPA regulations next year.

The Safe Drinking Water Act required that all surface water systems, such as the MWRA's Wachusett Reservoir system, were to be filtered by June 1993 unless stringent criteria were met that made filtration unnecessary. The Wachusett water supply failed to meet those criteria in the past and they do not meet them today. Nonetheless, the MWRA is asking the state to waive its filtration requirement.

EPA and other public health professionals have long concluded that filtration is the most effective treatment available for removing waterborne pathogens such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium, both of which can cause severe gastro-intestinal illness in humans.

While chlorine disinfection can eliminate Giardia, it does not kill Cryptosporidium. Chlorine's inability to kill Cryptosporidium - a pathogen also found in the Wachusett watershed - is important because Cryptosporidium can make particularly sensitive people seriously ill, including the elderly, young children, cancer and AIDs patients.

Filtration would also make it unnecessary for the MWRA to greatly boost its usage of chlorine for disinfection on a long-term basis. Numerous studies by public health specialists have linked long-term exposure to chlorine byproducts with cancer. Proposed federal regulations, to be finalized within the next year, are expected to impose stricter limits on these chlorine byproducts. EPA officials say the MWRA may well be unable to comply with the proposed standards if it continues to rely entirely on chlorination without filtration. Conversely, a filtration plant would enable the MWRA to greatly reduce long-term chlorine usage while also providing water that meets both current and any proposed future standards.

While water from the Wachusett poses no immediate threat to most water users, DeVillars said, filtration is a central part of a comprehensive multi-barrier approach for assuring a safe drinking water supply.

"Public health experts nationally and locally will tell you that watershed protection, disinfection, delivery-pipe maintenance and filtration are the four basic building blocks for a high-quality drinking water supply," DeVillars said. "Massachusetts has embraced the first three strategies, though it has much to do on each, but when it comes to filtration the MWRA has in essence dropped the ball."

DeVillars praised the MWRA, the MDC and the Commonwealth for their enhanced watershed protection efforts since 1992, and other efforts by the MWRA and local communities to improve their water pipes. "Locking in further progress on the good start that has been made thus far is a key objective of this action," he said.

The state's strategy for protecting the Wachusett watershed includes a land acquisition program to prevent further development of land around the reservoir and a sewering program to replace the many failing septic systems that are being used in the watershed. Although progress has been made on both programs, the state agency has not met specific targets set by Massachusetts officials and the EPA.

Building a new filtration plant would cost an estimated $190 million. According to MWRA data, that would mean added costs of about $30 a year for MWRA ratepayers.

"This is a relatively small price to pay for a step that would dramatically improve the quality, safety and taste of the water we drink each and every day of the year," DeVillars said. "We hope we can negotiate a settlement agreement with the MWRA and have every expectation of doing so, but if we cannot we are prepared to win our fight in the federal courts."