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0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8a390002"A national treasure in our backyard"It spans more than 13,000 acres. Nearly a quarter of the state’s population lives within its watershed. In a 2010 series, Amy Quinton looked at the trouble pollution poses to the health of this critical estuary, and some proposed solutions for returning the Seacoast’s Great Bay to health.Now, NHPR's Environment Reporter Sam Evans-Brown brings you continuing coverage of the efforts being made in the Great Bay.Coverage supported by Penn State Public Media.Great Bay Watershed Map | More Great Bay Images

Great Bay Communities and EPA Square Off In Exeter

Sam Evans-Brown


Representatives of five New Hampshire towns say the Environmental Protection Agency is imposing wastewater limits on the Great Bay that are a financial burden. They made their case to two members of the Congressional Committee on Oversight at a field hearing held in Exeter Monday. While towns and regulators haggle over the cost of improving waste water treatment, time may be running out for the Great Bay estuary.

A Contentious Issue

The EPA mandate to clean up the waste water flowing into the great bay has always been contentious. The congressional field hearing in Exeter was no exception, when Congressman Darrell Issa questioned EPA administrator Curt Spaulding.

Issa: So not getting sued is one of your considerations for setting a standard? Spalding: Our standard is that the permit needs to be legal. We get sued on both sides quite frequently. It’s a consideration but not a determination… Issa: But you wouldn’t be having these kinds of e-mail discussions if it wasn’t trying to get groups to agree that if you meet their standard, their standard, you won’t get sued.

That back and forth was over whether or not the EPA allowed the Conservation Law Foundation to influence its rulemaking.

The EPA is looking at mandating the amount of nitrogen that can be released in wastewater. In March a coalition of five towns in the Great Bay watershed -- Exeter, Rochester, Dover, Portsmouth and Newmarket -- sued the state on procedural grounds, saying EPA mandated upgrades to their wastewater plants would cripple them financially. Those towns recruited the support of their congressional delegation, and Gov. John Lynch, to write a letter to the EPA outlining their concerns.  

That support led to Monday's hearing in Exeter called “EPA Overreach and its effects on New Hampshire.”

Bad Science?

Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H., and  Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sat side by side and invited representatives from the communities to air their grievances. Most of those grievances are about the multimillion dollar price tags of new wastewater plants.

But others, like John Hall, an environmental consultant representing the coalition of towns, called the assessment that the EPA based its permit on bad science.

Hall: If I had handed this assessment in, in a master’s program, as a basis for calculating a nutrient limit, I would have gotten an F.

While the five communities suing the state are grabbing headlines, not all of the towns that would have to upgrade their wastewater plants have joined the suit

Tom Morgan, planning director in Newington -- which comprises 40 percent of the Great Bay’s shoreline -- says the town supports the most stringent proposed limits on nitrogen.

He says anyone arguing about the science of what is causing the decline of the Great Bay ecosystem is just quibbling.

Morgan: Great Bay is one of the most studied bodies of water in North America, this stuff about questioning science is just an attempt to delay, delay, delay, so they’ll push the problem off for someone else to take care of.

Headed for a Crash

This much is clear: the Great Bay ecosystem is dying, and nitrogen is a big – maybe the biggest – part of the problem.

Nitrogen is a fertilizer and when it gets into the water it causes algae to grow. That algae out competes the native eelgrass, which is where the estuary’s food chain starts. Eelgrass has been declining steadily over the last two decades.

The heart of the disagreement is that two-thirds of nitrogen comes from non-point sources: like fertilizer or animal droppings that run-off your lawn there is a rain storm.  

The towns are arguing that going after wastewater plants alone is not going to solve the problem.

And Curt Spalding, of the EPA, agrees.

But his office can only gently prod state and local governments when it comes to non-point source pollution, but it can directly mandate wastewater improvements.

Spalding: Well, it’s basically because EPA implements the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Water Act addresses waste-water plants.

While it’s clear that saving the Great Bay’s ecosystem will be expensive, Peter Wellenberger of the Conservation Law Foundation, says restoring the ecosystem if it crashes will cost even more.

He says we’ve seen that in the Chesapeake Bay.

Wellenberger: Now we’ve seen it’s gonna cost Maryland alone billions and billions and billions over the next few years in an effort to clean up the bay and we don’t even know how successful they’re gonna be.

But right now no-one, from the local level all the way up the US congress, seems to have the money to spend. 


Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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