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Environmental Lawsuit Targets Barnstable Sewage Treatment Plant


Barnstable’s sewage treatment plant is at the center of a new lawsuit filed by a Boston-based environmental group.

The Conservation Law Foundation, which filed the lawsuit in federal court in Boston, said that the facility in Hyannis is polluting Lewis Bay with nutrients such as nitrogen that degrade water quality and cause serious algae outbreaks.

“It doesn't really do the job,” Chris Kilian, Vice President of Strategic Litigation at CLF, said of the facility. “It operates like a giant septic system right now in the sense that unlike lots of other wastewater treatment facilities, the Hyannis facility releases its effluent into sand beds.” That effluent, he said, makes its way through the Cape’s sandy soil into the watershed.

The wastewater treatment facility, Kilian added, is the single largest source of nitrogen in the Lewis Bay watershed, and there is no remaining capacity for additional nitrogen in the waterways.

“They're already past the tipping point,” he said. “They're seriously degraded and dying. And so the discipline now is to actually implement measures and controls that reduce nitrogen.”

In response, Barnstable town officials forcefully denied the claims, saying they’re taking decisive and effective action to improve water quality.

“The Town has already invested $30 million toward the first phase of sewer construction needed to address this problem, and additional construction is planned to begin later this year, including upgrades to the Hyannis wastewater treatment plant,” officials wrote in an email. “By the end of the decade, sewer expansions will be in place to remove nearly half of the nitrogen needed to protect our waters, with the remainder completed in subsequent phases.”

The Foundation, Kilian said, is concerned that the Hyannis wastewater treatment plant is operating without any coverage under the federal Clean Water Act, which prohibits discharges of pollutants unless a facility has a permit authorizing the discharge.

“The town has no permit so they are violating the prohibition,” Kilian wrote in an email.

But Barnstable town officials said the Hyannis wastewater treatment plant adheres to applicable environmental requirements.

“It operates the Hyannis wastewater treatment plant in full compliance with a Groundwater Discharge Permit issued to the Town by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection,” officials wrote. “If CLF is seeking to change the manner in which the plant is permitted, they need to take up that issue with state and federal permitting agencies.”

Kilian said he’s not convinced.

“I expect that you're going to hear from the from the town that they don't believe that they're obligated to obtain coverage under the Clean Water Act,” he said. “Unfortunately, that's just more of the same from the town, and it's one of the reasons that, from our perspective, we're in this bind."

If the foundation wins the lawsuit, the town would be forced to operate its wastewater treatment plant under a more rigorous federal permit and upgrade the facility to reduce nitrogen pollution.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.