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February 21. 2013 10:41PM

Nitrogen at center of Dover wastewater debate


Following a workshop with the Dover City Council about pending wastewater costs Wednesday night, state Sen. David Watters (D-District 4), left, spoke to N.H. Department of Environmental Services Commissioner Thomas Burack, who met with officials about the impact of a federal permit to help decrease the levels of nitrogen in Great Bay. (JOHN QUINN/Union Leader Correspondent)
DOVER - Since Newmarket and Exeter are working to replace their wastewater treatment facilities, state environmental officials and city leaders want to "bridge the gap" to satisfy taxpayers while helping protect water quality in Great Bay.

Four officials from the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, including Commissioner Thomas Burack, met in the McConnell Center with city officials to discuss the costs of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which is renewed every five years, during a council workshop Wednesday night.

While Dover pledged to reduce nitrogen output at the local wastewater facility from about 22 milligrams per liter to 8 mg/L, the NPDES permits limit Newington and Exeter to 3 mg/L.

"We have no reason to believe the EPA would handle Dover differently than Newmarket or Exeter," Burack said.

Holly Grossman, who owns 13 properties on Mill Street, felt city officials should drop their appeal and reduce nitrogen emissions to the level required by the EPA. "I'm really concerned about Great Bay and I'm willing to pay extra," Grossman said, adding she feels if the levels are too stringent, the federal perp

permit will be reviewed every five years.

City Councilor Catherine Cheney said it will cost $1,200 per user to reduce nitrogen levels to 8 mg/L and it will cost $3,200 per user to reduce levels to 3 mg/L.

City Councilor Mike Crago asked Burack why he supported the EPA's new limits just a month after he signed a memorandum of agreement with area communities. While he didn't get a direct answer Wednesday, he said he feels money is the issue as the DES received most of its funding from the EPA.

Burack said the DES's annual budget is about $190 million. He also said 35 percent comes from federal grants and 7 percent comes from general funds, but the bulk of revenues come from communities paying back loans which the DES provides to help build wastewater facilities.

Mayor Dean Trefethen asked Burack to support Dover's efforts - in writing to the EPA - to reduce nitrogen emissions from about 22 mg/L to 8. He said the proposed upgrades to the city's wastewater treatment facility will create a "substantial drop."

"The circumstances in Dover are different than Newmarket and Exeter," Trefethen said, adding while the facilities in the other communities are at the end of their lives, Dover's wastewater plant remains in good shape.

Trefethen said he was troubled that the EPA issued Newmarket and Exeter a permit for 3 mg/L, but is allowing the communities to decrease their emissions to 8 mg/L in the first five years before re-evaluating whether more is needed. He doesn't expect the more stringent restriction to be removed.

Trefethen said the EPA must coordinate with the State of Maine, which regulates its wastewater facilities, including those in Kittery, Elliot and Berwick, which are across the bay from Portsmouth, Dover and Rochester, respectively.

Trefethen said he feels the city and state are within reach of an agreement, but are being held up by details. "I would like to see us bridge that gap," Trefethen said, and he believes it is possible to reach a reasonable agreement.

Burack said the regulations are set by the EPA, which issues the permits. The decision to increase regulations is based on a decade of research. He said the DES needs to update the conclusions from 2009, which were based on information from five years ago.

"There is a need for more data collection and analysis," Burack said, and there needs to be decisive proof that communities are doing enough to protect the Great Bay.

Additionally, Burack said the DES wants to include communities from Maine which are part of the watershed into the Great Bay. "Everyone benefits from clean water," Burack said.

As a result, officials agreed more research is needed to continually track the progress of the efforts in the Great Bay, according to Ted Diers, administrator of DES's watershed bureau. "The scientific consensus is the nitrogen need to be reduced," Diers said, adding nitrogen is not the only factor into the health of the estuary, which is extraordinarily complex.

Although researchers currently spend about $65,000 a month to study the Great Bay, Diers expects it would cost two or three times as much to capture the "interactions in a complex system."

N.H. Sen. David Watters (D-District 4), who represents Barrington, Dover, Rollinsford and Somersworth, said he submitted Senate Bill 110, which would require the DES to adopt rules from the 2009 rate criteria and submit the conclusions from 2009 to an independent review. Watters hoped the legislation would encourage discussion about water quality and local control.

"Dover's making an extraordinary commitment to the Great Bay," Watters said.

Meanwhile, Watters said legislators are scheduled to consider House Bill 393 - which was submitted by State Rep. Adam Schroadter, a Republican from Newmarket - in executive session Tuesday. He said it proposes to limit phosphorus and nitrogen in fertilizers.

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