EPA extends comment deadline on new stormwater rules

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 By Melanie Graham/ Milford Daily News staff

Those looking to express their concern or support for a federal stormwater mandate now have an extra three months to air their views.

Environmental Protection Agency Regional Director H. Curtis Spalding said in a letter sent yesterday that the EPA has decided to add three months to the public comment period for the draft of a stormwater regulation affecting Milford, Bellingham and Franklin.

"It's good news," said state Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford. "The additional three months gives us all an opportunity to take a deep breath and try and take a look at each other's concerns."

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-2nd, held a meeting at the EPA's regional office in Boston where he, along with state and local officials, requested the comment period be extended by six months.

Many of those officials then followed up the meeting with last-minute letters requesting the six-month extension.

The extension, Fernandes said, will allow the EPA to offer businesses a more detailed explanation of the proposed regulation, called a Residual Designation Authority permit, and its requirements.

While Spalding's letter acknowledges the importance of an informed public, it argues that there is a need to move the process forward to address "a serious environmental problem."

"The bottom line is that we really want this program to work," said David Deegan, a spokesman for the EPA. "We understand that people in these three communities need the time to understand the proposal and get us well-thought-out comments."

Deegan said the three months is "generous" compared to the typical 15-, 20- or 30-day extensions.

Milford selectmen Chairman William Buckley said he appreciates the fast response from the EPA and while he requested a six-month extension, the three months will still help.

"I think it means (the EPA) is listening," Buckley said. "Anything that allows the towns and businesses to better prepare is appreciated."

The regulation is aimed at significantly reducing the amount of phosphorous in the Charles River.

Local officials have fought the regulation, arguing that the cost of the stormwater-cleansing systems will bring down businesses in an already grim economy.

Officials have estimated that the systems will come with a price tag of $6,000 to $120,000 per acre.

Environmental groups argue that stormwater runoff brings high levels of phosphorous into the river, causing overgrowth of vegetation, which throws off the natural ecosystem.

The phosphorous, officials say, is also causing dangerous blue-green algae to grow in the river, which can harm humans and pets.

Under the new rules, certain businesses and planned residential communities in the three towns will have to implement systems that redirect stormwater away from the river. The three towns are also expected to implement systems to remove phosphorous from water coming from public property and storm drains.

"Hopefully, (the extension) brings the level of heated conversation down some and (allows officials) to actually get into the reasons for the rules and what opportunities there are for the towns," said Robert Zimmerman, executive director for the Charles River Watershed Association.

Zimmerman said the association hopes to hold some informational meetings for the communities on the importance and benefits of the regulation.

Bellingham DPW Director Donald DiMartino said the extension will make a difference only if the EPA holds more public meetings and face-to-face sessions with the affected property owners.

State Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, called the extension a "positive move," saying that the additional time will allow for the public to form a fully informed decision on the regulation's impact.

"I applaud our friends in the federal government for hearing our call to extend the public's ability to testify," Moore said in an e-mailed statement.

But educating the community in just three months will be difficult, said Milford Town Engineer Michael Santora.

"I think the three-month extension might be adequate, but (the EPA) is going to have to put their nose to the grindstone," Santora said.

Santora said Monday's meeting in Boston shed light on the idea that many businesses in the community were not clear on the requirements and the time line of the regulation.

"In our opinion, it became apparent that the EPA hadn't done a good enough job informing the public," Santora said.

Franklin Director of Public Works Robert Cantoreggi said educating owners of condominium complexes will be important over the next few months.

"I don't think the condo associations have really realized (the regulations) will affect them," Cantoreggi said. "That's a big piece of the pie."

The extra time, Cantoreggi added, will also allow for more businesses to hop on board and offer their opinion of the proposed mandate before a decision is made.

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