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EPA Orders Four Municipalities to Remove Illicit Discharges into the Charles River

Release Date: 11/09/04
Contact Information:

Contact: David Deegan, EPA Press Office, (617) 918-1017

William Walsh-Rogalski, (617) 918-1035

For Immediate Release: Nov. 9, 2004; Release # 04-11-01

BOSTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today ordered four municipalities along the Charles River to remove illicit pipes discharging raw sewage into the Charles River. Watertown, Brookline, Newton and Waltham have been ordered to conduct comprehensive investigations and to remove pipes that discharge combined sewer and storm water into the Charles. The four communities receiving orders have failed to provide EPA with progress reports, as required, or to make a commitment to removing the connections by the end of 2004.

These orders are part of a larger effort by EPA New England to ensure that the Charles River is fishable and swimmable on a consistent basis.

Last year the Charles met boating standards 85 percent of the time and swimming standards 46 percent, a significant improvement since 1995 when the Charles was meeting bacteria boating standards only 39 percent of the time and swimming standards only 19 percent. During that time, significant efforts by state and local agencies, businesses and individuals have successfully reduced storm water discharges, illicit sewer connections and other pollution sources. Removing combined sewers along the river has been a critical part of the cleanup.

In addition to grants and low interest loans for wastewater treatment plant construction, EPA has recently invested $1.55 million in the cleanup of the Charles, primarily to fund studies, provide technical assistance to municipalities, to provide support to environmental groups, conduct research and cleanup and to support watershed education programs in the local high schools. This includes a $400,000 grant last year to the Charles River Watershed Association, as part of EPA's competitive national Targeted Watersheds program.

More importantly, the agency has taken a number of enforcement actions under the Clean Water Act to eliminate contamination through public reconstruction of infrastructure. Discharges from CSO's have been reduced 90 percent and more than one million gallons per day of contaminated water from illicit connections, such as those being addressed by the orders issued today, have been removed.

"By eliminating dozens of illegal sewer discharges, we have been able to significantly improve the quality of water in the Charles River," said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator for EPA's New England office. "Today's orders will help ensure that we continue our progress towards a cleaner and healthier Charles River."

During the last year, bacteria samples taken at and near storm drain pipes suspected of being contaminated with sewage turned up about 30 drains likely to come from in illicit connections in these four communities, plus Boston. This 'hot spot' sampling, was done with the help of Cambridge resident Roger Frymire, who canoes along the Charles identifying areas of potential trouble.
"The notion that storm water is somehow as volatile as combined sewage is simply wrong," said Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, which collects the water quality samples used for grading the river. "Charles River Watershed Association tests have shown storm water as it enters storm drains is 10 times less volatile than the numbers the storm water managers have used. As a consequence these orders to cleanup remaining point source discharges are very important to restoring the Charles."

This year EPA gave the Charles a B-, a drop from last year. The grade, based on water quality data collected the year before, showed that water quality improvements in the river have leveled off in recent years and that additional storm water controls and planned sewer system upgrades will be essential for water quality to improve over the next few years. The lower Charles River Basin between the Massachusetts Avenue and Longfellow bridges, where much of the recreational activities in the Charles now occurs, is meeting swimming standards more than 90 percent of the time and the lower Charles from Watertown to Boston is meeting the standard roughly 60 percent of the time.

"As the work of cleaning the river gets more challenging, we are counting on cooperation from such communities as these along the Charles to help with the effort," Varney said.

While environmental officials acknowledge the huge challenge involved in restoring the Charles, they say the goal of making the river safe for swimming and fishing is within reach. Future improvements will depend to a large extent on towns and cities along the Charles incorporating the kind of all-out effort already underway in both Boston and Cambridge. Those two cities are spending hundreds of millions of dollars tackling illicit sewer connections, storm water overflows and other pollution problems that continue to beset the Charles River, especially after rain events.

Over the last five years, communities have successfully closed illegal discharge pipes and separated sewer lines responsible for much of the river's pollution. More than one million gallons a day of sewerage was removed from the river through those efforts. But storm water overflows and illegal sewer-line hookups continue to discharge more sewage that still must be eliminated.
For more information about EPA's Clean Charles 2005 project, visit EPA's web site at

Related Information:
Charles River Initiative
Charles River Core Monitoring Reports (NERL)
Rivers and Watersheds
Storm Water