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Timothy P. Murray: The EPA’s too-tough take on water, sewer progress

The key question facing our region, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is how to achieve these mutual goals.

Recently, the Worcester City Council voted to increase water and sewer rates for Worcester and nearly a dozen surrounding towns.

This increase is a burden for home and business owners, yet the council had very little discretion in the matter, because of an aggressive and ultimately counterproductive approach by the EPA.

When it comes to the regulation of municipal water and sewer systems, the EPA is failing to partner with communities to achieve mutual goals. This doesn’t have to be the case. The EPA and communities could work in a more productive fashion.

I know this, because it is precisely the model that Worcester, and Massachusetts, have used to become national leaders in the reclamation, clean-up and re-use of old contaminated industrial sites often called “Brownfields.”

Through the 1980s and 1990s, as our economy shifted, many of these old industrial sites in Gateway Cities became abandoned, degrading the property values and quality of life in the neighborhoods around them. New businesses stayed away because of the risks of redevelopment.

We realized, however, that there was a broad public interest in cleaning these sites and putting them back to productive use, and Massachusetts helped lead a national movement to do so.

In that effort, the EPA was a flexible, collaborative and earnest partner that provided federal resources to match state, local and private sector funding to assist in cleaning up contaminated properties.

Unfortunately the EPA takes a much different approach with water and sewer issues.

Rather than seeking common ground and workable solutions with municipalities, they rely on unfunded mandates and court action. Like many of my former colleagues in government, especially those on the municipal level and in our Gateway Cities, the EPA’s rigid top-down approach with unreasonable timetables is both a budget buster and demoralizing. This view has been shared by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Regarding the city and the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District, perhaps the EPA’s position would be more understandable if the communities in this region were wanton polluters.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years, we have made major investments to our water and sewer system and seen positive results for the environment.

The Blackstone River has seen a renaissance. Many of us who grew up in central Massachusetts heard the old stories of how the river was foul and discolored in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, the Blackstone runs clear. Many species once lost to the area have returned to the river and the watershed. Our municipal leaders continue to try to do the right thing, but they need a partner in the EPA who understands the overall economic reality in play.

If we continue to burden home and business owners with excessive water and sewer fees, we will damage our ability to grow our economy, and further limit our ability to make needed improvements that offer real environmental benefits.

Here in Worcester, the Chamber supports the City Council and administration in their efforts to get the EPA to take a more flexible and reasoned approach to this issue.

We will work with our federal elected and appointed officials to achieve this goal, and direct more federal funding to help pay for needed projects.

Only by working together can we continue to improve water quality and sewer treatment standards.

Former Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray is president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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