The state legislature has taken its first step to move forward a bill that would require public notice in the event of sewage discharges into waterways. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville), Representative Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen), and Representative Denise Provost (D-Somerville), received a favorable vote on Wednesday from the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, the first threshold the bill must pass to become law. The bill’s advancement this early in the two-year legislative session is an indicator of strong interest among lawmakers and Committee leadership.
The bill, H.3976, would require sewage system operators to issue a public advisory within 2 hours of a sewage discharge and every 8 hours thereafter until the discharge has ended. A final advisory would be required within 2 hours of the conclusion of the discharge. The advisories would be made available online; sent via email or text message to subscribed members of the public; submitted to the 2 largest local news organizations; and distributed to local boards of health, municipal officials, the state Department of Public Health, and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Sewage discharges often occur during heavy storms in communities whose wastewater and storm water drainage systems are combined. When storm water floods the system, overflow channels carry excess rain and sewage directly into nearby waterways. The resulting discharges, known as combined sewer overflows or CSOs, carry harmful pathogens such as fecal coliform and bacteria that can cause dysentery, hepatitis, and other gastrointestinal diseases. CSOs also cause algae blooms, which can be toxic to people and deprive water bodies of oxygen, killing fish and other marine life. For residents who use the river for boating and swimming, the risk of exposure is particularly high.
“I’m happy to see more and more people kayaking, paddleboarding, and canoeing on the Mystic, even jumping in,” Said Senator Jehlen. “We need to know when there’s been a CSO discharge, to avoid getting sick from exposure to raw sewage. That’s why it’s important to pass this bill.”
Massachusetts currently discharges the most sewage of any state in New England. In 2018, outfalls along the state’s major rivers and waterbodies discharged an estimated 3.4 billion gallons of sewage. According to DEP, five sewage treatment systems along the 117-mile Merrimack River reported hundreds of discharges totaling more than 800 million gallons of sewage. As climate change increases the frequency of severe storms, these figures may climb in coming years.
“This legislation is the first step, and an important one, in the process of eliminating CSOs,” said Representative Campbell. “State government has a responsibility to ensure residents are notified in a timely manner of sewage discharges so that they can avoid serious health repercussions. It is encouraging that sewage system operators are proactively supporting notification and are committed to public notification. It is also encouraging that Congresswoman Lori Trahan has made infrastructure upgrades to our systems a priority, with the aim of discharge prevention. Notification will bring needed attention to this issue as we move incrementally towards upgrading infrastructure.”
Under existing state law, publicly regulated sewage treatment systems are required to notify DEP immediately after a sewage discharge and no later than 24 hours. Exactly who is notified after that varies depending on state and federal permits, but residents and local public officials very rarely make the notification list.
In addition to requiring public advisories, the legislation directs sewage system operators to work with DEP to install metering equipment to detect and measure discharges. Operators would also need to install signage at overflow locations and public access points to waterways, such as boat ramps and swimming areas, to inform the public of the health risks of CSOs and to provide instructions on how to subscribe for the public advisories.
“A few weeks after my election to the House in 2006, constituents took me on a tour of sewage outfalls in Alewife Brook and the Mystic River,” said Representative Provost. “A couple of months later, a student visiting my office told me that when rowing for the Somerville High School Crew Team, he sometimes saw what he thought was human waste floating in the river, and wanted to know if that was possible. When I told him that it was, he wanted to know what I was going to do about it. I’ve always remembered these experiences, and I’m grateful that the legislature seems prepared to do something to help our people avoid direct contact with raw sewage in our rivers and lakes.”
Gabby Queenan, Policy Director at the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, said the state’s current notification rules are inadequate. “This problem of antiquated water infrastructure that causes these sewage overflows is an issue across the nation. However, in Massachusetts, we have fallen particularly far behind our colleagues in other states when it comes to addressing the public health issues associated with this infrastructure. In 14 other states, the public is provided a notification whenever there is a sewage spill in a public water body. But there is currently no statewide general public notification requirement for Massachusetts.”
House and Senate versions of the bill are backed by more than 80 lawmakers, with strong bi-partisan support. The legislation has now been referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means, where it will undergo further analysis as it awaits a vote on the House floor.