On July 26, 1.69 million gallons of partially-treated wastewater overflowed from Portland’s East End Sewage Treatment Facility into Casco Bay. This story made the news and captured our attention. That same day, 9.85 million gallons of combined sewer overflows (CSOs), containing raw sewage and toxic chemicals, also entered the Bay. Not a single news outlet reported that fact.
So while swimmers—especially those preparing for the Peaks to Portland Swim—worried about the impact of the partially-treated discharge from the East End plant (wastewater that had already had solids removed and been chlorinated to kill bacteria), we worried about the close to 10 million gallons of a far more toxic slurry that entered the Bay.
On that day, the combined sewer overflow at Mackworth Street discharged 824,000 gallons of untreated water and the CSO at Dartmouth Street discharged 833,000 gallons into Back Cove. The India Street CSO discharged 415,000 gallons and the Long Wharf CSO released 563,000 gallons of untreated water into Portland Harbor.
What is a Combined Sewer Overflow?
Combined sewer systems are relics of the past that we are still using today. In Portland and many cities across the county, these systems were designed to collect—and combine— sewage and stormwater in the same pipes. Most of the time, the pipes transport all the collected wastewater to a sewage treatment plant, where it is treated and then discharged into a body of water. But when we experience heavy rains or snowmelt, the runoff entering the system exceeds the capacity of the pipes. When the pipes fill to certain levels, these antiquated systems are designed to dump a mix of stormwater, untreated waste, toxic materials, and debris directly into the ocean, or into nearby streams and rivers that flow into the Bay.
These periodic discharges are far more concerning to us than a one-time breach at the East End facility. For over 25 years, Friends of Casco Bay has been pushing the City to eliminate these combined sewer overflows. We are very supportive of Portland’s current work to separate combined pipes, build storage tanks, and eliminate CSOs. Over the next two years, as Casco Baykeeper, I will represent Friends of Casco Bay as a member of the stakeholder team that helps shepherd a process called integrated planning, which will enable the City to meet these objectives efficiently and in ways that best improve water quality.
The Environmental Protection Agency created the integrated planning approach to help municipalities such as Portland meet multiple Clean Water Act requirements by identifying efficiencies from separate wastewater and stormwater programs and sequencing investments so that the highest priority projects come first. This approach can also lead to more sustainable and comprehensive solutions, such as green infrastructure, that improve water quality and provide multiple benefits that enhance community vitality.
We will continue to participate, as we have for over 25 years, to help ensure that these combined efforts achieve more effective and timely improvements in water quality in Casco Bay.
What you can do to reduce stormwater and sewage pollution
Support communities’ efforts to upgrade their wastewater and stormwater systems.
Employ “green solutions” to reduce stormwater runoff from our own properties:
install permeable pavement on driveways and patios, so water percolates into the soil below
reduce the size of the lawn; plant shrubs and ground cover, which hold water better then turf
use rain barrels to catch runoff from roofs
Boaters should use shoreside bathroom facilities or pumpout services to keep raw sewage out of the Bay. Our pumpout boat operates from Memorial Day to Halloween. Contact pumpout [at] cascobay [dot] org.
As always, Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca has been on the move, working across Casco Bay, the state—and the nation—on efforts to protect the environmental health of Casco Bay.
A peek into her appointment calendar shows some of the highlights so far this year, as she continued to track Legislative issues and to comment on proposed wastewater and stormwater discharge permits that the Department of Environmental Protection issues to municipalities.
I became coordinator of the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA) for 2018.
I will help coordinate research and advocacy on ocean acidification with a strong statewide network of policy makers, fishermen, shellfish growers, and scientists. This year-long role supports our work examining coastal acidification and excess nitrogen.
I invited Portland’s Water Resources Manager, Nancy Gallinaro, and Portland Water District’s Director of Wastewater Services, Scott Firmin, to travel with me to meet the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 1 Administrator, Alexandra Dapolito Dunn. We highlighted our joint efforts to reduce nitrogen pollution, combined sewer overflows, and stormwater pollution to Casco Bay. I shared our data showing the impacts of climate change on Casco Bay.
Administrator Dunn accepted our invitation to come to Maine in June to attend a meeting of the Maine Nutrient Council, a group convened by Casco Bay Estuary Partnership. Afterward, Administrator Dunn will tour the Bay on our Baykeeper boat, a great opportunity for a close-up view of issues that threaten the water quality of Casco Bay.
I traveled to Washington, DC, at the invitation of Ocean Conservancy, to meet with our Congressional delegation and ask for full funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the EPA. The measures we pressed for passed in the omnibus budget!
Back in Maine, I submitted comments opposing offshore drilling and then attended a meeting hosted by the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, to voice Friends of Casco Bay’s opposition to offshore drilling. I supported a resolve that was passed unanimously by our state legislature expressing its opposition to offshore drilling.
I testified at a public hearing as we worked to swiftly defeat a bill that would have practically eliminated the ability of municipalities to pass pesticide ordinances. If you contacted legislators after receiving our email alert about this issue, thank you! The bill was defeated!
I traveled to New Hampshire to attend a meeting of experts concerned about the rise in harmful algal blooms throughout the region, so we could learn more about new species appearing in Casco Bay.
I attended a meeting in West Bath, which drew together people who live and work along the New Meadows River, to discuss how expanding efforts in aquaculture may figure into the many uses of the estuary.
Research Associate Mike Doan gave Kate Simpson and Kayla McMurray, staffers for Senator Susan Collins, a ride to our Continuous Monitoring Station in Yarmouth. I met them at our “Cage of Science” as we demonstrated how we use technology to monitor the Bay hourly, 365 days a year. We explained that though we do not receive funding directly from the EPA, the Agency has a vital role in advising state regulators on strategies to reduce pollution, funding other research, and enforcing the Clean Water Act. This work helps us all protect the environmental health of Casco Bay.
The Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA) is a volunteer partnership that seeks to coordinate the work of governmental agencies and private organizations and citizens who are studying and implementing means to reduce the impacts of or help adapt to ocean and coastal acidification.
With my colleagues in the MOCA Partnership, I hosted a workshop for nearly 60 scientists, harvesters, policy makers, and advocates on What We Know about Ocean Acidification and Maine’s Lobsters. The event at Bowdoin College featured current research on the effects of climate change on lobsters and emphasized the need for ecosystem-level, long-term studies.
As the year progresses, I look forward to continuing to keep you updated on the biggest issues affecting the health of the waters we all love.
We are delighted to share that in January 2018, the City of Portland passed one of the strongest ordinances in the state to restrict pesticide use.
Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell served for nearly a year on a task force to help the city develop the ordinance. She often found herself a fulcrum of the group, reminding everyone of their common purpose to protect Casco Bay. The ordinance is similar to one that South Portland passed in 2016, also thanks in part to Friends of Casco Bay’s advocacy. While state and federalauthoritieshave been slow to protect our waters from these toxic chemicals, we are heartened to see local communities take action.
Why restricting pesticide use is important for the health of the Bay: We have long been concerned about the possible impacts of lawn chemicals—pesticides and fertilizers—on the environmental health of Casco Bay. Our monitoring efforts revealed that the lawn chemicals we are putting on yards can end up in the Bay. Between 2001 and 2009, we collected rain water flowing into the Bay and analyzed the samples for a suite of pesticides. Lab results identified 9 different pesticides in 14 locations all around the Bay. Pesticides do not belong in the Bay, as they have the potential to harm lobsters, fish, and vital habitat.
Imagine if we could remove 500 to 1,000 pounds of excess nitrogen from the Bay each day. An historic effort by Portland Water District may do just that!
After nearly a year of work, the Portland Water District and Friends of Casco Bay developed an agreement aimed at reducing nitrogen pollution from sewage effluent. The collaboration helped the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) develop a 139-page,
five-year permit for the City of Portland’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility, which is managed by the Water District, that will better protect water quality. The permit was issued on March 22, 2017.
The $12 million upgrade to the plant’s aeration system may help reduce nitrogen in the plant’s effluent waters by 500 to 1,000 pounds each day!
The aim is to reduce nitrogen loading in the discharges from the plant by 20-40% within five years. This is the first wastewater discharge permit in Maine to address nitrogen levels and is now a model for other communities.
A History of Our Work to Reduce Nitrogen in Casco Bay
In 2007, Friends of Casco Bay helped persuade the Maine Legislature to pass a law requiring the Maine DEP to establish a limit on how much nitrogen may be discharged into coastal waters. Instead of following the Legislature’s lead, DEP has chosen to limit nitrogen permit by permit in Casco Bay. This had led Friends of Casco Bay to work with DEP, municipalities, and businesses, to help set realistic limits on nitrogen in Clean Water Act discharge permits issued to sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities.
We are working with the City of Portland on its Combined Sewer Overflow Remediation Project that will help reduce
nitrogen-laden sewage overflows into the Bay.
Our pumpout boat removes raw sewage—another source of nitrogen—from the holding tanks of recreational boats and transports, for onshore disposal. Contact pumpout [at] cascobay [dot] org.
Our BayScaping program works with residents and municipalities to help keep fertilizers and pesticides from polluting the Bay. We present BayScaping Socials to help neighbors reduce the use of lawn chemicals. With our support, South Portland passed an ordinance to restrict pesticide use, with an assurance to tackle fertilizers next. Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell served on the Portland Pesticide Task Force as that city considers a similar ordinance.
After serving for 8 months on Portland’s Pesticide Task Force, Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell is hopeful that Maine’s largest city ultimately will pass an ordinance to restrict pesticide use. Cathy testified on the issue a meeting of the City Council Sustainability and Transportation Committee on June 21. You can read our testimony which lists the many reasons that Friends of Casco Bay supports the draft Pesticide Ordinance crafted by the Portland Pesticide and Fertilizer Task Force here.
The 12-member task force consisted of a diverse set of stakeholders, including concerned citizens, lawn care professionals, and scientists. While meetings were occasionally tension-filled, the task force came out in support of an ordinance that bans the use of pesticides, both synthetic and organic, on lawns, patios, and driveways, and within 75 feet of water. The draft ordinance would also have Portland form an advisory committee to develop data on pesticide use.
“The draft ordinance is a good start—it doesn’t solve every problem associated with pesticides, but it does takes a good bite out of the apple,” says Cathy.
Stormwater testing by Friends of Casco Bay found pesticides flowing into the Bay in more than a dozen locations. This led to our outreach effort: BayScaping. After nearly two decades of education to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers, Maine homeowners still use a large amount of pesticides. That is why we became involved in “grassroots efforts” with local communities to restrict the use of lawn chemicals.
In task force meetings, Cathy saw her role as one of finding common ground between those who wanted outright prohibitions on all pesticide use and applicators who did not want any new restrictions.
“In times like these, it would be easy to be an obstructionist and stop any forward movement,” said Cathy. “For the task force to do its job, though, we had to find common ground. Everyone on the committee agreed that we need to keep these chemicals out of the Bay. The recommended ordinance is a compromise position based on the idea that aesthetic pesticide use to make our lawns look pretty is not the best use of these toxic chemicals, given the risk to our health and the health of the Bay.”
The City Council Sustainability and Transportation Committee now takes up the draft ordinance. The committee will discuss the issue at a workshop on June 26 at 5:30 at City Hall.
On July 27th, a photograph on Instagram drew the attention of our in-house social media expert Sarah Lyman. She messaged Maine Drone, asking if the photographer might be interested in flying a drone over Back Cove in Portland. We wanted to document a disturbing development that our Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell first had noticed a few weeks earlier. As soon as Sarah posted this photo, people began reporting slime-covered coves elsewhere. The image generated inquiries about Green Slime from print, radio, and TV reporters.
Abundant sunshine and high temperatures, along with ample amounts of nitrogen, created ideal conditions for thick mats of green algae to flourish, to the detriment of sea creatures underneath. Our own photos show that beneath the green algae, mud dwellers are struggling to survive in low oxygen and high acidity.
These photos show our summer intern Josh Clukey at Mill Cove, South Portland with slime and a dead clam.
In recent years, long dry periods have been followed by heavy rains that dump inches of water in a few hours or days, sending plumes of polluted stormwater into Casco Bay. Millions of gallons of raw sewage, industrial wastes, fertilizers and pet wastes from yards, oil slicks from city streets, and toxins from tailpipes and smokestacks are flushed into Casco Bay.
As he gazes out over a brown bay after yet another torrential rain, Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne knows the coffee-colored stain spreading across the water’s surface is anything but fresh water. “This toxic soup can sicken swimmers, make seafood unsafe to eat, and harm marine life,” Joe says. Rainstorms in and of themselves are not bad, but the polluted runoff they flush into Casco Bay reminds us that we all need to do more to protect the waters that define our community. It takes a community to address the problems and ensure a cleaner, healthier Casco Bay for future generations.