Holyoke needs $27M in repairs to fix river polluting issue; agreement reached with DOJ

  • The Connecticut River is shown with the Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom ranges in the background.

Published: 3/23/2023 6:14:39 PM

HOLYOKE — The city will undertake $27 million in infrastructure projects over the next 15 years to partially separate its stormwater and sewage systems to solve a long-running problem of sewage discharges into the Connecticut River.

Holyoke officials reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday, with the city agreeing to take steps to reduce its discharges of sewage into the river. According to the office of Rachael Rollins, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, the DOJ brought enforcement action against the city on behalf of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

The agencies contacted the DOJ after stating that Holyoke was discharging wastewater sewage into the Connecticut River, a violation of federal and state regulations.

“Fiercely protecting our environment is a civil and human rights issue and ensuring that every community has clean water is a vital part of that work,” Rollins said in a statement. “We will continue to require with the full force of the federal government that every community is healthy and safe.”

Rollins’ office acknowledged that Holyoke’s sewer system, which services 70% of the city, usually transports all wastewater to a facility for treatment. But during periods of heavy rainfall, the wastewater volume exceeds the capacity of the system, with the overflow discharging into the Connecticut River.

“This is not a new problem,” Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia said in a statement. “This is what the state of Massachusetts calls a ‘legacy problem of early infrastructure.’ Many communities are dealing with the same issue and it’s always expensive because it requires redesign and upgrade.”

Holyoke first entered into a partial agreement in 2019 to develop a long-term plan for reducing its sewer discharge. A final consent decree between the DOJ and the city, filed in federal court on Wednesday, solidifies the previous agreement and provides the framework of Holyoke’s agreement to remedy its pollution issues.

It is estimated that required infrastructure improvements, such as sewer separation work to eliminate or reduce additional combined sewer overflows, will cost $27 million, with projects stretched into 2037, according to the consent decree.

It also includes the city paying a $50,000 civil penalty, to be split evenly by the federal and state government.

The city must inspect its sewage discharge to monitor for traces of bacteria, ammonia, surfactants and chloride. It must also submit to the EPA an Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination (IDDE) Plan by May 31 that includes a schedule to inspect and repair manholes that contribute to contamination of the river.

Failure to implement these measures would result in a $1,500 fine for every day the city is not in compliance, bumped up to $3,000 per day after 10 days and $5,000 after 20 days.

“This settlement is good news for Holyoke citizens, and for the health and enjoyment of the Connecticut River and downstream communities,” said David Cash, the New England Regional Administrator for the EPA, in a statement. “As Holyoke includes historically disadvantaged communities, this settlement is especially important for ensuring that all citizens can enjoy a clean and healthy environment.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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