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Tackling CSOs is Key Component of Restoring the Connecticut River

Release Date: 05/29/2001
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office (617-9189-1008

By Ira Leighton

The Connecticut River has come a long way in the past 20 years.

Once derisively called "America's best landscaped sewer," the 410-mile-long waterway that runs from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound is cleaner and healthier.

Anglers and boaters are returning. Shad are again making their miraculous spawning runs in big numbers – more than 200,000 have been lifted over the Holyoke Dam this spring alone. And tourists and residents are strolling the river's edge like never before, especially in Hartford and Springfield which are revitalizing their downtowns with new riverfront parks, walkways and bike paths.

But the Connecticut's turnaround is far from complete. Illegal sewer connections and runoff from roads and farms are major concerns that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is tackling in concert with communities. But one of the biggest challenges, especially in a 15-mile stretch of the river in western Massachusetts below the Holyoke Dam, is a major pollution source known as combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Take a close look the next time you're boating or walking along the Connecticut and there's a good chance you'll notice some large discharge pipes along the water's edge. If you're in Springfield, Holyoke or Chicopee, it's likely you'll be looking at a CSO outfall pipe. And if it's raining, there's a strong likelihood the pipe will be discharging untreated sewage and other pollution.

Combined sewers are antiquated systems that carry sewage and stormwater runoff in the same pipes to local sewage treatment plants. When there are heavy rains and snowmelts, the combined flows will exceed the capacity of the plants. To protect them from being flooded, CSO pipes were purposely designed to bypass treatment plants after heavy rains, resulting in direct discharges to waterways like the Connecticut.

CSOs are a big pollution problem all over New England and are the main reason why many of the region's rivers are still unsafe for swimming and fishing during and after heavy rains. The problem is especially serious for the Connecticut in the Greater Springfield area, where many municipalities are still burdened with more than 100 CSO pipes.

Consider the numbers. Chicopee's 31 active CSOs alone discharge about 20 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into the Chicopee and Connecticut Rivers after every two-inch rainstorm. Springfield's 25 CSOs overflow hundreds of times a year, sending an estimated 600 million gallons of wastewater into the Connecticut and its tributaries. Holyoke's 15 CSOs also overflow hundreds of times a year, discharging a half-billion gallons of pollution annually.

Added together, the Connecticut River and its tributaries are receiving more than 1.5 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater each year from CSOs. It's no wonder that vast stretches of the river in Massachusetts and Connecticut are routinely unsafe for fishing and swimming after rainstorms.

The work and cost of eliminating CSOs is significant, but it's well worth it. Whether a community needs to take a year or 10 years to eliminate CSOs, this effort is a crucial part of cleaning the Connecticut and revitalizing cities and towns along its banks.

Under the Clean Water Act, EPA has a duty to ensure that actions are taken to reduce sewage discharges to the nation's waterways. In doing so, we are committed to working closely with communities to develop innovative abatement strategies and flexible schedules that both take into account available resources and maximize environmental benefits.

Thanks to the cooperative work of EPA, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and communities, we're making a lot of progress in western Massachusetts. Agawam, West Springfield, Montague, Palmer, Ludlow and South Hadley have already eliminated their CSOs or are in the process of doing so. Additionally, Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield all started construction this spring on the first of their CSO abatement projects.

And more improvements are on the way. Springfield reached an agreement with EPA last fall to fix six of its 25 outfall pipes and reduce stormwater pollution to Watershops Pond, the headwaters of the Mill River which flows to the Connecticut. The stormwater work will lead to immediate environmental and public health improvements – including the elimination of noxious odor problems after rainstorms – for residents living near the pond.

More recently, Holyoke agreed to take immediate action to reduce sewage overflowing into the Connecticut – both in wet and dry weather. An EPA order specifically requires the city to remove all dry weather overflows from two CSOs. EPA issued the order after reviewing the city's long-term CSO abatement plan and determining which improvements were most critical.

The work ahead may be daunting, but the progress is encouraging. As we move forward, we will continue to work closely with the cities, DEP, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the Connecticut River Watershed Council to update residents about CSOs and actions that are being taken to eliminate them.

If communities can finish the job of removing CSOs, the Connecticut River will be a big step closer to again becoming the environmental, cultural and economic center it once was, and that it deserves to be today.

Ira Leighton is acting regional administrator of EPA's New England Office