When all else fails, blame bad science

Disclaimer: it should be noted that the only scientific experience I have is two years of high school chemistry and one year of college chemistry.

On tonight’s City Council agenda is the nth memo from Commissioner Moylan about the big bad EPA.

The memo presents a two-page fact sheet from DPW.

A few points of interest:

“Since 2006, the larger treatment facilities in Rhode Island have reduced their annual total nitrogen load discharged to the Bay by 20%, yet the [Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement] District has reduced its contribution to the Bay by 61%.”

Readers should always beware when percentages are given rather than hard numbers.  There’s nothing in here that says whether the nitrogen load at those Rhode Island facilities was less than UBWPAD (so there was less of a reduction needed) or the actual figures for the nitrogen load.

In fact, reading this, you’d never know that the “larger treatment facilities in Rhode Island” are tiny when compared to UBWPAD.

UBWPAD is designed to handle a peak flow of 160 million gallons a day (mgd) and treats an average of 36.6 mgd.  Woonsocket is the next biggest and it is designed for a peak flow of 16 mgd and treats an average of 7.3 mgd.  (That’s 20% the size of UBWPAD.)

All the other Rhode Island abatement districts combined treat 12.55 million gallons a day; that means Upper Blackstone is 75% of the water abatement business on the Blackstone River.

“The EPA chose to disregard this science in setting their limits. They instead relied on outdated science criticized by their own Science Advisory Board (SAB) as being unacceptable for setting nutrient limits. The Court then granted ‘extreme deference’ to the EPA to allow them to continue to use the outdated and SAB-panned science.”

I recommend readers review the court decision for themselves.

Of interest from that decision:

“In this case, the District overstates the availability of its data during the 2008 permit process. Although it was working on a computer model during the permitting process, the District did not present any data from the unfinished model during the sixty-four-day public comment period, and could not provide an estimated date for the model’s completion. Indeed, it was uncertain during permitting whether the District would be able to successfully complete the model at all. Multiple previous attempts by state and federal actors to develop similar computer models had failed, leading RIDEM’s experts to conclude that the Blackstone watershed ‘was too complicated to simulate with available mathematical models.’ The EPA took into account this prior experience as well as the uncertainty surrounding the District’s efforts to develop the model when it declined to delay issuance of the permit until some indefinite point in the future.”

In other words, the District didn’t have a complete model available at the time of the permitting process, and if the EPA allowed delays until “better science” came along, districts could delay indefinitely, as there’s always “better science” being developed.

Indeed, “the District will have multiple opportunities to submit new information to the EPA during the lengthy permit compliance process.”

“Meeting the aluminum limit mandated by EPA will result in an aluminum concentration that is approximately one third of that which occurs naturally in New England’s waters.”

From the court decision:

“We find that the District has waived the argument by failing to raise it during the public comment period of the permitting process.”

In other words, if it had been that important, the District would have mentioned it at the time of permitting rather than tacking it on to a long list of complaints.

Nitrogen limits

Keep in mind that one of the things the UBWPAD is fighting is a 5.0mg/L nitrogen limit.

From the court decision:

“RIDEM has also set a 5.0 mg/L nitrogen limit for East Greenwich, a much smaller facility, with an average daily flow of approximately 1.7 mgd, but which is located on a particularly impaired portion of Narragansett Bay. The Woonsocket
facility, which, behind the petitioner District in this case, is the second-largest sewage treatment plant discharging into the Blackstone River, has been given a 3.0 mg/L nitrogen limit as part of a consent agreement. Five other much smaller facilities have been given nitrogen limits of 8.0 mg/L.”

In fact, Woonsocket is already beginning to see rate increases (as are the towns that are part of its abatement district) as a result of the more stringent limits.

3 thoughts on “When all else fails, blame bad science

  1. Joe says:

    Great post.
    I’ve been meaning to write a letter to my councilor(s) and ask them to encourage Mr. Moylan to suck it up and stop wasting the City’s money on legal challenges.

  2. Tracy says:

    I think the real question here, though, is: did you have Gary Rosen for a teacher in chemistry class?

    • Nicole says:

      I did not. I had Mr. Graham (whom I do not believe is still teaching) and Mr. Petkus, both at Doherty. Both really instilled a lifelong love of chemistry (and physical science in general) in me (though I sadly have no talent for it). I am very grateful to those two men.

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