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Cleaning Up the Cape's Algae Problem

Conservation Law Foundation

Rotten eggs and black mayonnaise—sights and smells that, to the dread of many, are becoming increasingly common across Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Over the past 30 years, increased development and insufficient wastewater treatment systems have degraded the quality of Cape Cod’s waters. Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), in association with Buzzards Bay Coalition, are working to clean up the Cape—work that was recently covered by David Abel in The Boston Globe.

The eggs and mayonnaise (a description Abel used to open his piece) are but two signs of a growing body of evidence, both visible and disturbing, of degraded water quality. While visitors and residents depend upon Cape Cod’s pristine waterways—suitable for swimming and conducive to ocean life—instead they find ponds and bays that, in warm months, can be covered in a film of algae, while the water itself turns an opaque copper color.

This degradation is the consequence of too much nitrogen, the result of improperly treated wastewater, primarily from the Cape’s preponderance of septic tanks. In the Cape’s loose, sandy soils, wastewater moves quickly through the ground and is carried into the bays and estuaries before it can be adequately filtered. The region’s economy, ecology, recreation and beauty have all suffered as a consequence, and will suffer more if stakeholders continue to delay action on a clean-up plan.

In September, the staff at CLF, together with Buzzards Bay Coalition, filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Our claim— that the EPA failed to fulfill its responsibilities to oversee a regional water quality plan as required by the Clean Water Act. This lawsuit was CLF’s second showing EPA’s failure to address the Cape’s nitrogen pollution problem. The first, concerning point sources, was filed in August 2010, and can be found here.

Why is this so important? The regional plan under question has not been updated since 1978, despite predictions at the time about the environmental risks of unchecked nitrogen pollution. Today, the consequences of decades of inaction are clear—badly degraded waterways with mounting costs for solutions and little time left to ponder them while the region’s ecology and economy hang in the balance..

The answer, CLF argues, is a legally enforceable, coordinated blueprint to clean up the Cape. “It’s our firm belief that a coordinated regional approach is necessary—not individual towns trying to solve the problems on their own,” says Christopher Kilian, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, as quoted in The Boston Globe article.

The approach EPA will ultimately take is the subject of ongoing negotiations between CLF and the Buzzards Bay Coalition, EPA and Barnstable County officials. A report to the court is due Dec. 6. Stay tuned.

For more on CLF’s efforts on cleaning up the Cape, read the release on our recent lawsuit, filed with the Buzzards Bay Coalition.

For more information, click here.

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