By Francis X. Quinn
With a final decision from federal environmental officials on Clean Water Act standards still pending, Congressman John Tierney and Mayor Carolyn Kirk appear to be trying to publicly smooth over a rift that spilled into view last month — and in a way that supports Gloucester's pitch to maintain its waiver from a potential $60 million project.
In the aftermath of a spirited public hearing at which city officials and residents challenged the need for the $60-million sewage plant upgrade, Kirk had chastised Tierney for not lending his full weight to Gloucester's dispute with the Environmental Protection Agency.
That, in turn, led to some pointed back-and-forth between top aides to the two officeholders as the final days of public comment on EPA's intentions regarding the plant were counted down.
Now, with the public comment deadline having passed, Tierney has written a letter to the mayor — and made available to the Times — seeking to spotlighting his most recent efforts on the city's behalf.
In an April 8 "Dear Mayor Kirk" letter, the 6th District Democratic congressman wrote that he had met in Washington with Curt Spalding, the EPA's chief New England administrator, "to continue this office's efforts to seek to achieve a fair and reasonable outcome for Gloucester residents on the pending application for modification of secondary treatment requirements" under the federal Clean Water Act.
The subsequent text of the letter to the mayor emphasizes repeatedly what Tierney casts as his advocacy for the city.
"As I believe you know, at the city's request, my staff and I have been and remain engaged with the EPA's New England regional office, having participated in substantive conference with EPA personnel prior to last month's public meeting at Gloucester City Hall.
"And, again at the city's request, we delivered to EPA representatives at that public meeting's outset a letter addressed to Mr. Spalding articulating the city's concerns with his tentative decision and enclosing a copy of the city's rebuttal to it."
"During my meeting with Mr. Spalding, I reiterated the city's concerns and also respectfully urged Mr. Spalding to take into account the city's detailed rebuttal and to work with you and other city officials regarding pre and post permit issuance, as may be appropriate," Tierney continued.
"Mr. Spalding indicated a willingness to do so; and, in fact, he seemed to welcome the opportunity to discuss (the) matter and to reiterate to city officials that intention," Tierney wrote.
Kirk said Monday she had received Tierney's letter and welcomed it.
"I'm pleased to see that the congressman has followed up and is focused on the important issues facing Gloucester," she said in a telephone interview Monday.
Kirk said she had seen Tierney last week at a fisheries meeting in Washington and had thanked him publicly for his involvement there.
As for Tierney's focus, Kirk allowed that "I think it took a little bit of a dust-up" — referring to her comments about his lack of engagement last month — but suggested both of them could "move on from that."
Gloucester is urging the EPA to reverse a tentative decision and extend a waiver from Clean Water Act provisions for the city's wastewater treatment plant.
Last November, the EPA announced its draft decision to deny a waiver extension, saying it meant to advance healthy water quality in the coastal areas of Cape Ann near the city of Gloucester,
The current permit has been in effect since 2001.
The federal agency said the reason for the waiver denial was a failure to meet the current permit limits, including "whole effluent toxicity" — a measure of the toxicity of the effluent on living organisms) — oil and grease, and fecal coliform bacteria.
The city, however, maintains that the basis for a waiver — originally dating to 1985 — continues to exist, perhaps now more than ever.
The EPA's time frame for action is unclear and telephone messages left for officials at the agency's regional office, which is headquartered in Boston, were not returned immediately Monday.
Francis X. Quinn can be reached at 978-283-7000 x 3455 or firstname.lastname@example.org.