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Editorial: Seacoast towns must clean up their act

New Hampshire’s 13,000-acre Great Bay is a national treasure and one of the East Coast’s most productive estuaries. Its health has been severely compromised by nitrogen and other pollutants dumped into the bay for decades by surrounding communities. Those communities are now being required by the EPA to clean up their act. All but one is resisting, and two have gone to federal court, where judges should take a jaundiced view of their unwillingness, after all these years, to comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

The communities are being told to upgrade or replace their aging wastewater treatment plants to gradually reduce the nitrogen emissions in their discharge an average of 3 mg per liter. The estimated price of doing so for Portsmouth, Dover, Exeter, Newmarket and Rochester, is all over the map, but the cost will be measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. That price tag prompted the communities to form a coalition to fight the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Services, delay action pending further study and press for a more lenient standard of 8 mg per liter. Both agencies should hang tough.

Save for Newmarket, which agreed to the standard in negotiations with the EPA, coalition members have successfully stalled for two years. This week, presumably because they fear the precedent Newmarket’s acquiescence might set, Dover and Rochester filed suit in federal court challenging the granting of Newmarket’s permit. It’s hard to see how the two communities have legal standing to challenge an agreement between a third community and the EPA, but if the suit goes forward they deserve to lose.

Excess nitrogen weakens and kills the acres of eelgrass that clean the bay and the rivers that feed into it and serve as a nursery for fish and other marine life, an overall indicator of the bay’s health. The eelgrass has made a bit of a comeback in recent years, but it has a long way to go. According to the EPA, it declined by 37 percent between 1990 and 2008 and disappeared completely from Little Bay and portions of tidal rivers. The nitrogen the EPA and state environmental officials blame for the decline has several major sources. Wastewater treatment plants are blamed for about 30 percent; non-point sources, those that don’t come from a pipe, get the balance of the blame. Those include run-off from agriculture and lawn fertilizers, old or leaky septic tanks and excess nutrients that flow into rivers and streams by storm water that, because of the region’s enormous increase in impermeable surface like roofs, roads and parking lots, is not absorbed and filtered but funneled into the bay.

The Seacoast communities fighting the EPA say more should be done to reduce the non-point sources of nitrogen in order to permit lower standards that would have a less dramatic effect on sewer rates. The fact is, the battle to improve the water quality of Great Bay must be fought on both fronts simultaneously. Portsmouth’s Pierce Island treatment plant, for example, was built in 1964. Despite improvements over the years, it remains the only such plant in the state that performs only primary treatment, filtering out solids and adding chlorine to sewage before pumping its into the sea. The EPA has been pushing for secondary treatment with Portsmouth officials since 1985. The city now wants until 2032 to comply. Delaying that long, especially for a city that’s a prime tourist destination, is unconscionable. Great Bay is a jewel that belongs to everyone. Its well-being must be placed over that of the wallets of Seacoast residents, who, if they don’t pay now, will pay even more if the bay’s health worsens.

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