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, through community perseverance, Massachusetts has strong regulations to put this law into practice.
On February 16, Governor Baker held a signing ceremony for the bill:
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 187 combined sewer overflow (CSO) outfalls, and 19 CSO permittees (MassDEP). 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:
Map of CSO outfalls, courtesy of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection
How can people find out about local sewage discharges?
Senator Jehlen, Representative Campbell, and former Representative Provost filed a bill to create a public notification system so residents can receive timely information on if their local waters are safe. The 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.
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.
Patrick Herron, Executive Director of the Mystic River Watershed Association, presenting at a legislative briefing.
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!
JANUARY 2022 - REGULATIONS ARE ROLLED OUT
In the fall of 2021, MassDEP released draft regulations to implement the sewage notification law. Mass Rivers and our partner organizations reviewed them with a fine-tooth comb. We were pleased to see MassDEP remain dedicated to environmental justice communities with a requirement for warning signage in locally appropriate languages. However, we were disappointed that the draft regulations proposed to allow "blended sewage" overflows (a combination of partially-treated and treated sewage) to skirt most of the public notification requirements. This carve-out was clearly contrary to the law's intent and would have allowed most discharges to occur without full notification. Our community came together - by speaking up at hearings, sending the agency letters and emails - to make sure this law was implemented in its entirety.
MassDEP listened. The final regulations came out in January 2022, and included changes advocates had suggested for better protecting public health: blended sewage discharges now require full public notification. The final rules are a testament to our grassroots community.
From legislation to regulation - this is a moment of celebration and gratitude! Thanks to all the work done by organizations, legislators, municipal leaders, individuals, and MassDEP staff, the state of Massachusetts now has strong regulations to inform the public about when and where there's fecal contamination in their waters.
The journey is not over. Raw and partially treated sewage should never be discharged into our waters. We still must work as a community to make sure the new rules are upheld in practice. CSO permittees have until summer 2022 to get their public notification system up and running.
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. 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.
These are expensive projects, but these investments are critical to protecting our environment, public health and safety, and ensuring environmental justice and climate resilience. 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
As of July 7, 2022, all permittees are required to offer a notification system in accordance with MassDEP regulations.
Sign up for notifications & learn more about CSOs in your area below:
How are people responding to these notifications?
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)