Defending strong pollution limits for West Falmouth Harbor

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The Coalition’s campaign to restore and protect West Falmouth Harbor encompasses a wide range of efforts, from working with private property owners to install nitrogen-reducing septic systems, system-wide water quality monitoring, and installation of conservation moorings.

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Legal advocacy is a central component of our strategy to strengthen the protections for West Falmouth Harbor and continues to be successful in securing further safeguards for the Harbor. Thanks to the Coalition’s recent appeal and settlement of the town’s wastewater treatment plant permit, today, Falmouth is operating under the strictest permit ever issued to it. The new permit ensures that the amount of nitrogen discharged from its treatment plant into West Falmouth Harbor and nearby Herring Brook is significantly limited.

Early in 2021 both the Coalition and the town of Falmouth appealed the wastewater discharge permit issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The 2021 permit went farther than previous permits in setting strict limits on nitrogen pollution. The town appealed the permit arguing that the limits were too stringent. Following several months of negotiation, the town and Coalition dropped the appeals preserving the permit’s new safeguards.

“This is hugely important for solidifying the gains that have been made to restore and protect water quality and habitat in West Falmouth Harbor,” said Mark Rasmussen, president of the Coalition. “We are never going to let up our focus on West Falmouth or stop advocating for successful restoration of water quality in the harbor.”

The harbor’s health has declined in recent decades due to nitrogen pollution from the wastewater treatment facility. Nitrogen fuels the growth of algae that makes the water cloudy and covers beaches and boats with slimy green muck. Because of nitrogen pollution, the harbor’s underwater eelgrass beds have died and fish and shellfish populations have slowly disappeared.

In 2008, the U.S. EPA approved a federal pollution limit called a TMDL for West Falmouth Harbor, which prompted the state to set a strict limit on nitrogen discharges into the harbor and the town to upgrade its wastewater treatment facility. But those standards have not been consistently met. In three of the last five years, Falmouth exceeded its nitrogen limit by a substantial margin, including by more than 40 percent in 2019.

When the state issued Falmouth a new permit for the wastewater treatment facility in January, the town appealed to weaken the standard so that Falmouth would merely need to make its “best effort” to stay within mandated nitrogen discharges. It also sought to eliminate a new requirement that the plant be independently audited each year to ensure that the town optimizes its operation and plans appropriately for maintenance of the facility. The settlement of the appeal ensures that these important safeguards will remain in place.

“This outcome is good news for the West Falmouth community, which has shown a deep commitment to cleaning up the harbor and protecting it for the future,” Rasmussen said. “Together, we have a lot invested in restoring West Falmouth Harbor, and with these standards established, we can focus on ways to further the progress that has been made in cleaning up nitrogen pollution and giving the harbor time to recover. There is so much more that needs to be done.”

In 2020, the Coalition completed a four-year effort working with local property owners to facilitate the installation of 30 nitrogen-reducing septic systems in environmentally sensitive areas around the harbor. Planning for a new phase in that work is now underway. In addition, the Coalition is partnering with boat owners and the Falmouth harbor master to replace traditional boat moorings with conservation moorings that will help speed the restoration of eelgrass in the harbor.

The Coalition also has worked to conserve forests and salt marshes around the harbor. Most recently, the organization partnered with the 300 Committee and two property owners to preserve approximately 10 acres of coastal lands on Chappaquoit Road. This work not only supports important habitat for fish, birds, and wildlife—including designated rare species—but also creates an important buffer that will prevent pollution from reaching the harbor and flowing into Buzzards Bay.

Categories: On the Bay, On the Land

Working to Save Buzzards Bay

The Buzzards Bay Coalition is a membership-supported organization dedicated to improving the health of the Buzzards Bay ecosystem for all through education, conservation, research, and advocacy.

We work to protect clean water on the Bay and on the land: