December 09. 2012 9:04PM

Municipal coalition advocates fight over Great Bay nitrogen regulations

Union Leader Correspondent

ROCHESTER - Unless legislators and residents can convince environmental officials otherwise, stringent region-wide regulations could unnecessarily cost 62 communities about $1.5 billion to reduce nitrogen levels in the Great Bay Estuary a group warned Thursday.

The Great Bay Municipal Coalition - which includes the communities of Dover, Exeter, Newmarket, Portsmouth and Rochester - challenges the science behind the studies which convinced the Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Services to establish the standards.

On Thursday, about 50 area residents, officials from cities and towns from around the region met and listened to John Hall, principal at Hall & Associates, an environmental law firm which has represented the coalition on Great Bay Estuary nutrient issues for the past two years.

Hall, who has been working as an attorney and engineer in the environmental field for three decades, reviewed the scientific basis for the EPA's proposed nitrogen limits for the coalition.

"The fundamental approach is essentially flawed," Hall said, adding both the EPA and DES is basing the data on information from 2008, but is not willing to consider previous data or hear new, more recent studies which contradict it.

"You can remove all the nitrogen, if you like, but it's not going to do anything to help the transparency in Great Bay," Hall said, adding he believes the "100-year floods" in 2005, 2006 and 2008 caused more sediment to flow into the bay.

"At that point, the water quality was horrible (in Great Bay) - it was horrible for months on end," Hall said, adding as a result eelgrass, which grows better in drier years, suffered after the increased rainfall. Hall said eelgrass, which contains sediment and provides habitat for fish, is an important measure of the health of the waterways. He added the eelgrass has returned in recent years.

"It's the base of the ecosystem of Great Bay," Hall said.

On Nov. 16 the EPA issued a final National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit - which limits nitrogen levels to 3 milligrams per liter (mg/L) to the Town of Newmarket. Hall said even though the EPA issued the permit, which expires after five years, the DES - the arbitrator for the state's water quality standards - agreed the new requirements were appropriate. Nonetheless, he added the EPA may be pressuring states to implement national regulations, which may not work in all areas.

Hall said Exeter's permit is expected to be issued soon and the EPA made it clear the other permits will be as stringent, except for Portsmouth since it is located on the southern edge of the bay. He encouraged area residents and officials to contact their state legislators about the issue and ask them to consider voting for the DES to conduct an independent peer review on the science behind the permits.

Barrington resident Holly Grossman, who pays property taxes in Dover and Rochester, said everyone should stop debating over the issue and start working on a solution.

"This sounds like an argument of sciences to some degree," Grossman said, adding she believes the nitrogen levels are causing the problem with the eelgrass.

State Rep. Steve Beaudoin (R-Rochester) said he's more concerned by the fact the DES didn't go through the legislature, which violated state law.

Altogether, it could cost the five coalition communities between $74 to $160 million to upgrade their treatment plants and $13 to $25 million in annual costs - which could increase user rates by 50 to 100 percent - to meet discharge standards."The public will incur a huge debt with little environmental impact," Hall said.

Dover City Manager Michael Joyal agreed that communities must protect the quality of the Great Bay, but the solution should not overwhelm taxpayers. As a compromise, he added Dover is looking to reduce nitrogen emissions at its facility from 22 mg/L to 8 mg/L- which is estimated to cost $10 million. If the stringent requirements are put in place in Rochester, Mayor T.J. Jean said Thursday that it could cost $20 million in upgrades to the city's wastewater treatment plant and an additional $2 million in annual expenses.