Sewer Overflow into Mystic River Watersh

SEWAGE RIGHT TO KNOW

When raw sewage enters your local waterway, you deserve to know.
For years, Mass Rivers led advocacy efforts with many partners to pass a state law requiring sewer operators to establish a notification system. The goal was to let the public know when there is a sewage discharge into a public waterbody, so residents can avoid contaminated waters. 
Now, we're working with the Department of Environmental Protection to make sure the regulations are rolled out smoothly and equitably. 

On February 16, Governor Baker held a signing ceremony for the bill:

THE PROBLEM

Many cities in the Northeast combine sewage and stormwater collection systems, a relic of long-ago urban engineering.  These systems are designed to bypass wastewater treatment facilities if the volume of water is too much for the facility to handle. For these aging systems, heavy rain sends a mixture of untreated sewage and storm into local waterways. Until now, there was no way for the public to know when these discharges occurred, leaving people downstream at risk of contact with contaminated waters.

In Massachusetts, there are 199 combined sewer overflow (CSO) outfalls, and 19 CSO permittees. These discharges regularly harm water quality in the receiving waters. In a typical year, Massachusetts' waterways receive almost 3 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage and stormwater from CSOs. These outfalls are concentrated in urban areas, like Fall River, Lawrence, and Lowell, making CSO pollution an environmental justice issue, as the closest waterways to residents of urban neighborhoods may be contaminated without their knowing. 

Fecal bacteria poses many public health threats, including ear and eye infections, skin rashes, hepatitis, and inflammation of the intestines. Emerging research also suggests that fecal bacteria can spread COVID-19. 

More information on the impacts of sewage discharges:

Department of Environmental Protection's page on combined sewer overflows >>

The Boston Globe: Water Quality Woes at Public Beaches >>

The Boston Globe: Pollution Plagues the Mighty Merrimack River >>

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THE SOLUTION


How can people find out about sewage discharges where they live? 

Senator Jehlen, Representative Campbell, and former Representative Provost filed a bill to establish a public notification system so that residents could receive timely information on if their local waters are safe. The final bill applies to any discharge of raw or partially treated sewage into a waterway, not just CSOs. 

 

The bill requires that operators of both CSOs and sanitary sewer systems:

  • issue notification of a discharge within 2 hours of discovering the discharge

  • issue updates every 8 hours while a discharge is occurring

  • issue this information to their website, municipal boards of health, the Department of Public Health, and to large news outlets

  • issue this information via text and email to individuals who are subscribed to the notification system

  • coordinate with the Department of Environmental Protection on a monitoring and modeling system

  • create warning signage near an outfall.

Representative Campbell and Senator Jehlen testifying in front of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Committee during a public hearing.

THE JOURNEY

Many organizations joined this advocacy journey, providing critical support in making the case for the bill, lending essential local perspectives: Mystic River Watershed Association, Neponset River Watershed Association, Connecticut River Conservancy, Nashua River Watershed Association, Merrimack River Watershed Council, Environment America, and Charles River Watershed Association. We're grateful to our wonderful partners and could not have done this without them.

In 2018, an especially large volume of sewage pollution was discharged into the Merrimack River. As a downstream community, Newburyport bore the brunt of all this sewage winding up in their waters. This event, after a lifetime of dealing with upstream CSO discharges, prompted Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday to get more involved with the bill. In December of 2019, Mass Rivers coordinated a letter to the Governor with 144 municipal officials signed on in support of this bill. 

This bill was filed during five consecutive legislative sessions, and had several hearings in the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Committee. Finally, in the summer of 2020, the bill passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously, and was sent to the Senate Committee on Ways & Means, where it sat until the final hours of the legislative session in January 2021. In quick succession that night, Senate Ways & Means reported the bill out of committee, the Senate voted to pass it, and both chambers enacted it, sending the bill to the Governor's desk! 

Patrick Herron, Executive Director of the Mystic River Watershed Association, presenting at a legislative briefing. 

Governor Baker signed the bill on January 12, 2021, and held a signing ceremony on February 16, 2021.

Now, we're working with the Department of Environmental Protection as they create the necessary regulations to carry out the bill's provisions. Part of that charge is to make sure all communities can access and understand the notification system - that includes publishing alerts in many languages and on many platforms. Regulations must be completed by the end of 2021, with a public notification system up and running by summer 2022. 

WHAT'S NEXT?

 

Raw and partially treated sewage should never be discharged into our waters. 

 

Public notification of sewage discharges is an important first step, and we hope it will lead to a greater public willingness to invest in much needed water infrastructure, including separating these combined sewer systems. These are expensive projects, but these investments are critical to protecting our environment, public health and safety, and ensuring environmental justice and climate resiliency. 

 

Combined systems are designed to send untreated sewage into waterways, which is terrible enough. But when water infrastructure fails, the results can be even more catastrophic - water supply interruptions, water and sewer main breaks, and sewage backed up into basements. It is past time for us to modernize our water infrastructure to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Thanks to YOUR support, we have greater protections for public health and water quality.
TOWN BY TOWN

Some communities already have public notification systems set up:

Communities with updated CSO discharge maps:

Learn about CSOs in your area:

Stay tuned to find out how you can sign up for overflow alerts in your area no matter where you live.

Press Coverage

January 2018 - The Big Stink: Raw sewage and untreated wastewater pouring into Massachusetts rivers (Boston Herald)
August 2018 - Sewage Spills Continue as Legislation Stalls (Eagle Tribune)
November 2018 - Pollution plagues the mighty Merrimack when rain is heavy (Boston Globe)
March 2019 - Cities Don't Always Tell You When There's Sewage In The River. A New Bill Would Change That (WBUR)
August 2019 - Water quality woes are common at Mass. beaches (Boston Globe)
January 2020 - Sewage spills still happen in Massachusetts, and the public should be alerted (Boston Globe)
January 2021 - Want To Know If Raw Sewage Gets Dumped In Your Local River? There’s A Bill On Baker’s Desk About It (WBUR)
January 2021 - Baker signs bill requiring resident notification of sewage discharge into local waters (South Coast Today)
February 2021 -Mass. Residents Will Now Be Alerted When Sewage Is Dumped Into Local Waterways (State House News via WBUR)
February 2021 - Baker signs sewage discharge notification bill (Newburyport News)

March 2021 - Massachusetts Rivers Alliance: A law that will keep water cleaner (Daily Item)

March 2021 - U.S. Reps. Trahan and LaHood Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Help Stop Sewage Discharges (WHAV)