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Press Release

United States and Commonwealth of Massachusetts Announce Settlement with City of Lowell to Address Pollution in Merrimack River

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs
City to Invest Approximately $195 Million in Total to Upgrade Sewage Systems and Protect Drinking Water for Downstream Communities

The Justice Department, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced a settlement agreement with the City of Lowell, Massachusetts, requiring the city to reduce sewage discharges into the Merrimack River. Under the consent decree, Lowell will pay a $200,000 penalty for past violations.

A portion of Lowell’s wastewater collection system consists of sewers that convey sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff in a single pipe. During wet weather, untreated combined sewage is discharged through combined sewer overflow (CSO) outfalls to the Merrimack River and its tributaries, including Beaver Brook and the Concord River. The Merrimack River is a drinking water source for several downstream communities. Today’s settlement requires work to separate wastewater and stormwater, which will minimize the number of times untreated sewage is released into nearby waters. 

Lowell will also implement a program to detect and eliminate illicit connections that discharge wastewater to the city’s stormwater system thereby reducing pollution in stormwater that flows into local streams and rivers. Lowell must also establish and implement city ordinances to help prevent stormwater runoff from construction and post construction sites.

The total cost to update the sewer system has been estimated at approximately $195 million.

This consent decree was the result of a joint enforcement action brought by the Justice Department on behalf of the EPA, and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, on behalf of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

“Today’s settlement will result in cleaner and healthier water for the residents of Lowell and downstream communities, including some with environmental justice concerns, that rely on the Merrimack River for drinking water,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Justice Department is committed to upholding our nation’s water protection laws for the benefit all.” 

“For far too long the city of Lowell, Massachusetts has failed to protect the communities that rely on the Merrimack River and other water sources for their drinking water,” said Assistant Administrator David M. Uhlmann of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s settlement demonstrates EPA’s commitment to ensure cities and towns meet their obligations under the Clean Water Act to prevent the overflow of sewage, pollutants, and debris into our nation’s waterways.”

“With this consent decree, the City of Lowell is taking necessary steps to further protect Lowell’s historic river ecosystem and improve the quality of the Merrimack River for its residents,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell. “These measures are critical as we continue our work to ensure that all of our residents live in a healthy and safe environment.”

“We are proud to have worked alongside our colleagues at the Attorney General’s Office and with our federal partners to make significant progress toward reducing contamination in the Merrimack River,” said Commissioner Bonnie Heiple of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “The Healey-Driscoll Administration is committed to addressing complex issues like combined sewer overflows head-on, using all available tools – including technical support, funding and enforcement – to promote better environmental and public health outcomes.”

“This settlement is good news for Lowell and for communities downstream who will be better able to enjoy healthful activities on and near the Merrimack River. The Merrimack flows through several historically disadvantaged communities, so this settlement is especially important for ensuring that all citizens can enjoy a clean and healthy environment,” said EPA New England Regional Administrator David W. Cash. “EPA is committed to continuing our work to ensure that Massachusetts and New Hampshire citizens along the Merrimack River have clean and safe water. The timing of this is fortunate, as funding assistance available in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law may help defray costs borne by local ratepayers.”

Lowell owns and, through the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility, operates the Duck Island Clean Water Facility, a 32 million gallon per day secondary wastewater treatment facility that discharges to the Merrimack River. The treatment facility treats wastewater not only from Lowell but also from the towns of Chelmsford, Dracut, Tewksbury and Tyngsboro, Massachusetts.

Lowell had previously signed a consent decree with the federal government and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1988 to address its illegal CSO discharges. While several interim actions have taken place, Lowell has not yet fully complied with the federal and state environmental statutes. More information on EPA’s efforts to address water quality issues can be found on the agency’s Merrimack River website.

The Justice Department’s Environmental Enforcement Section filed today’s proposed consent decree in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. It is subject to a 30-day public comment period and court approval. A copy of the consent decree will be available on the Justice Department’s website at www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.

Updated February 5, 2024

Topic
Environment
Press Release Number: 24-142