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How Nutrients In The Connecticut River Become Pollutants In Long Island Sound

By the end of the year, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new limits on the amount of nitrogen that wastewater treatment plants in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire can release into the Connecticut River.

That could mean a small tweak of a system, or a costly plant retrofit. No one knows for sure until the limits are announced.

Nitrogen is a pollutant that’s blamed for fish die-offs in Long Island Sound, where the Connecticut River winds up. The river is the largest freshwater tributary to the salty Sound.

Nitrogen in the river is not considered a pollutant by federal clean water standards. But it quickly becomes one in salt water, where nitrogen causes rapid algae growth.

Judy Preston explained why this happens as she stood near the shore of Long Island Sound in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

“When that algae finally consumes all of the nitrogen, and the nitrogen comes in pulses, they grow like crazy,” said Preston, a researcher with the EPA’s Long Island Sound Study (LISS) and at the University of Connecticut.

The algae's life-cycle, she said, saps oxygen away from other vegetation and aquatic life.

Credit Ryan Caron King / NENC
Judy Preston, Long Island Sound Outreach Coordinator for the Connecticut Sea Grant, stands on the banks of the Back River in Old Lyme, Connecticut on April 7, 2017.

When algae die, they sink. “That's where the bacteria come in, and start to consume the dead algae,” Preston said. “And in doing that, they're consuming the oxygen.”

And without oxygen, over the last few decades fish have suddenly died by the thousands. Marsh land has deteriorated. The whole system suffers, Preston said. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / NENC
The Connecticut River where it meets Long Island Sound in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, on April 13, 2017.

In 2001, the EPA set a nitrogen reduction target for the Sound itself, regulating wastewater treatment plants in Connecticut and New York.

As problems continue, environmental officials and others are looking at wastewater treatment plants in the upper Connecticut River watershed for additional reductions.

You Could Jump Right In

No one who works in wastewater treatment wants to witness a watershed being killed off, including Mickey Nowak, who delights at the sight of people fishing in a river he's helped to keep clean.

The Connecticut River plant he oversees is opposite the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

On an early spring morning, Nowak pointed to giant pools of treated wastewater, the “effluent” that will be sent back into the river.

“Looks like you could jump right in!” Nowak said.

Credit Ryan Caron King / NENC
Mickey Nowak, Project Manager for SUEZ Springfield on April 3, 2017.

New England's second-largest regional wastewater treatment facility serves seven towns, and is about 70 miles from Long Island Sound. At the end point of the sewage treatment process, up to 67 million gallons of effluent go into the river every day.

“This is a nice effluent,” Nowak said. “It does quite nicely in the river. I’m sure the nitrogen is under 10 milligrams per liter,” he added, with full knowledge that this plant and others from here to northern Vermont will soon be issued new EPA nitrogen loading regulations. 

Breaking It Down

Back in Nowak’s office, he took on a role of science teacher. Three jars were set up on a table. One was raw sewage, the “influent” -- what comes into the plant -- and it is remarkably clear.

Nowak laughed at the observation, and said, “Well, it’s mostly water.”

He described what’s flushed down toilets and dumped down drains genteelly as “industrial and domestic flow.”

Toilet paper in the jar was microscopic. It’s a product manufactured to break down, Nowak said. Flushable wipes are not, he moaned. And he pointed out nitrogen in this sample. It’s in what we eat.

“Ammonia is your most toxic form of nitrogen to go in the river,” Nowak said.

Organic nitrogen in urine and fecal matter converts to ammonia in collection systems, because there’s no oxygen available, he said.

“I think you've smelled ammonia in a diaper, right?” he joked. “So the diaper hasn't been changed!”

Nowak believes the wastewater treatment plant does a good job removing nitrogen. He said it could remove even more, because the technology is there, but it would cost a lot of money to make the changes needed.

Clean Water Act Phase Two?

With passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, Nowak’s plant and plants nationwide were built with millions of dollars in federal money.

“People were just happy to have a secondary treatment plant,” Nowak said. “They weren't even thinking about nitrogen. But over the years, that became more important.”

Credit Ryan Caron King / NENC
The activated sludge system, the "heart of the water treatment plant," in Agawam, Massachusetts, where wastewater is treated before going into the Connecticut River. Taken on April 3, 2017.

In 2017, the clean water changes needed -- and required by law -- will not be accompanied by federal grants.

Nowak and his boss, Josh Schimmel -- Executive Director of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission -- are waiting to hear from EPA regarding a new operating permit and nitrogen removal regulations.

“We don’t think [nitrogen] is an issue from our wastewater treatment plant,” Schimmel said.

Schimmel also said he does not trust the data the EPA is using to develop the new regulations. He said wastewater treatment plants are not the main nitrogen source for a problem more than an hour away from here. Septic tanks, field and land runoff, and the atmosphere are all contributing to the problem.

But that won’t keep the EPA from putting a limit on the amount of nitrogen wastewater allowed to discharge from treatment plants up and down the Connecticut River, from north of the Connecticut border up to the river’s headwaters in Vermont.

This report is the first in a two-part series. The second story is "Easiest Fix For Long Island Sound Is Not Necessarily The Fairest."

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Jill has been reporting, producing features and commentaries, and hosting shows at NEPR since 2005. Before that she spent almost 10 years at WBUR in Boston, five of them producing PRI’s “The Connection” with Christopher Lydon. In the months leading up to the 2000 primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show, and subsequently hosted NPR’s All Things Considered during the South Carolina Primary weekend. Right before coming to NEPR, Jill was an editor at PRI's The World, working with station based reporters on the international stories in their own domestic backyards. Getting people to tell her their stories, she says, never gets old.

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