House Unanimously Passes Bill to Alert Public of Sewage Overflows

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campbellBy: Rep. Linda Dean Campbell – Aug. 2020

Very exciting news for our Merrimack River and all who use it – the Massachusetts House of Representatives has unanimously passed a bill I filed to make sure the public is alerted in a timely fashion when sewage overflows into our state’s rivers. This is an absolutely critical step to protect residents from contact with contaminated waters.

In 2018, over 800 million gallons of untreated sewage were discharged into the Merrimack River, carrying with them the risk of exposure to a number of harmful pathogens, such as E. coli. Recent research even suggests that COVID-19 may be transmissible through sewage. It is more important than ever for residents to be informed when the river may pose a risk to their health.

This bill has been over 6 years in the making and earned widespread support from residents across the Commonwealth, environmental advocates, and state and local officials. The bill requires sewage system operators to notify the public within 2 hours of a sewage discharge, then every 8 hours until the discharge has ended, and within 2 hours after the discharge is over. All advisories will be available online, sent via email or text to subscribed individuals, submitted to news organizations, and distributed to state and local officials. This will provide residents with the information they need to protect their own health and the health of their families.

To help communities implement the requirements of the bill, the state set aside $800,000 in the 2018 environmental bond bill.

This bill is a first step, and a very important one, in the process of eliminating combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, which typically occur when rainwater overwhelms our drainage systems and causes sewage to overflow through outfall pipes directly into nearby waterways. Public notification will bring needed attention to this issue and allow the Commonwealth and cities and towns to apply for federal grant money to upgrade their wastewater infrastructure.

On July 30, after passing the House, the bill was sent to the Massachusetts Senate. The Senate advanced the bill last session, and I am optimistic they will do so again this year. The Baker Administration and the state Department of Environmental Protection support the legislation, so it has a high chance of being signed into law once sent to the Governor.

It is high time for residents who use our mighty Merrimack River to know when the water is unsafe. I am grateful to my colleagues in the Legislature for their support of this critical bill.

State Representative Linda Dean Campbell represents the cities of Methuen and Haverhill in the State Legislature and serves as House Chair of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs. She can be reached at or (617) 722-2380. ◊