By Melanie Graham/ Milford Daily News staff
Backing the concerns of local officials, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-2nd, held what he called a "productive" meeting yesterday with members from the Environmental Protection Agency in hopes of negotiating adjustments in a costly stormwater regulation that will affect the towns of Milford, Bellingham and Franklin.
The meeting, which was held at the EPA's regional office in Boston, included EPA's Regional Director Curt Spalding as well as state Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, state Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, and staff members from U.S. Sen. John Kerry's office.
Neal called the meeting "a step in the right direction."
Milford Board of Selectmen Chairman William Buckley said the meeting was helpful and allowed local and federal officials to express concerns to the EPA face to face.
"The environment of the meeting made it a lot more conducive to listening and hearing," Buckley said. "Everyone was sitting around a table talking to each other rather than at each other."
Kerry's press secretary, Brigid O'Rourke, echoed Buckley and Neal's statements, calling the meeting "informative and productive."
"(Spalding) addressed all of our major concerns and promised to continue to work with federal, state and local officials as well as local business owners who may be impacted," said O'Rourke.
O'Rourke added that Kerry plans to have a face-to-face meeting with Spalding in Washington tomorrow. U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-3rd, also met with Spalding in Washington earlier this month.
During yesterday's meeting, Buckley said lawmakers raised questions about funding and time constraints for the new regulation.
Under the new regulations, certain businesses and planned residential communities in Milford, Bellingham and Franklin are asked to reduce their stormwater runoff in order to lower levels of phosphorous in the Charles River. In its current form, the regulation asks that the systems be implemented over five years.
EPA officials have estimated the cost of the systems to be somewhere between $6,000 and $120,000 per acre.
"Many of these businesses are hanging on by a thread in a very tough economy," Buckley said. "Coming up with money for environmental consultants, engineers and (stormwater systems) is beyond many of (the businesses') control."
The 495/MetroWest Partnership shares similar concerns with timing and funding, said Jessica Strunkin, the group's deputy director of public policy and public affairs. Educating the business community and towns about the permit is also important, she said.
"Any discussion that sheds more light on what the program entails, the businesses' perspective and the EPA's perspective is good," Strunkin said. "I don't think there's been enough communication thus far ... it's a very complex topic."
Last week, numerous local officials, state lawmakers and environmental experts voiced their opinions on the new permit at a public hearing held in Franklin.
Neal, McGovern, Kerry and U.S. Sen. Scott Brown submitted a letter to Spalding at the EPA's Boston office last week voicing their concerns.
The public comment period for the regulation ends tomorrow at midnight.
Asking for an extension to the comment period, Neal said, was an important part to yesterday's meeting. The EPA assured officials, Neal said, that even after tomorrow, there will still be room for discussion.
Moore agreed, saying that one of the notable aspects of the meeting was the "willingness of the EPA to extend the comment period."
EPA officials indicated that an extension would be considered if there were enough requests from local, state and federal officials.
"There were some good opportunities for some understanding," Moore said. "(The EPA) certainly has a goal but I think they also recognize that this is potentially a significant cost to businesses and communities."
Moore added that EPA officials talked about briefing legislators on issues tied to the source of phosphorous, and the possibility of legislation for removing the element from items such as lawn fertilizer.
Although yesterday's meeting mirrored much of the previous discussion, Ken Moraff of the EPA's regional division, said he was pleased with the "useful" comments and suggestions from federal lawmakers.
"It was a very good discussion," said Moraff.
Over the next few weeks, EPA officials in Washington and Boston will consider the submitted comments and respond once the final regulation is approved.
In addition to the regulation's time line, Moraff said the EPA is also working on ways to support the towns with money and technical support.
"We're trying to design something that is very practical," Moraff said. "We're really interested in (making the regulation) fair to communities, businesses and homeowners."
Advocates for the new regulation say the phosphorous from stormwater is causing serious overgrowth of algae and plant life in the Charles River.
While the excess vegetation throws off the river's ecosystem, some forms of algae have also been shown to cause harm in both pets and humans, officials say.
Some lawmakers and local officials agree the river has to be cleaned up. However, they are concerned with the cost tied to the new regulations.
"I think everyone has a common interest here in designing something that works," Moraff said. "We're really listening."