Moulton, Trahan Partner on Combined Sewer Overflow Alert Bill—STOP CSO Act

Bill is among the first federal steps in addressing the 770 million gallons of sewage flowing into the Merrimack River each year

SALEM, MA – Representatives Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Lori Trahan (D-MA) introduced the Sewage Treatment Overflow Prevention through Community Sanitation Outreach (STOP CSO) Act of 2019, or The STOP CSO Act.

The STOP CSO Act would require local governments to alert residents within 4 hours if stormwater overwhelms sewage plants and carries sewage into rivers and watersheds. The bill also allows state and local governments use grant funding to create the alert system.

“The only place where the people of Massachusetts should have to think about dirty water is at TD Garden and Fenway Park,” Moulton said. “Washington’s failure to address the nation’s outdated infrastructure means more than just awful commutes–it threatens people’s health and our economy. Until our leaders find the willingness to work together, they should at least create alert systems so we know when hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage are flowing into our region’s rivers.

Congresswoman Trahan said: “The Merrimack River is a vital resource, supplying drinking water and other economic benefits to hundreds of thousands of people across the region. That is why the current state of contamination is so concerning. There’s no question that the federal government has an obligation to help municipalities like Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, and Manchester make urgently needed upgrades to their sewer infrastructure to help prevent this sort of pollution, which is why I have a bill to do just that. But we can’t wait, we must take precautions to alert residents when contaminants are released into the river possibly jeopardizing their health and wellbeing. That is why I am proud to join with Rep. Moulton to create a fast and reliable warning system to keep the public aware of risks they may be facing.” 

Combined sewer overflow occurs in cities and towns with archaic wastewater infrastructure systems. In those systems, everything that goes down the drain in houses and on streets flows into one network of pipes with industrial wastewater. The pipes carry the water to a wastewater treatment plant, where the water is cleaned and then drained into local waters. But, during heavy rains, storm water overwhelms the processing system, and a combination of untreated sewage and stormwater is released into local rivers.

According to estimates from the Merrimack River Watershed Council, six urban treatment plants dumped 770 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Merrimack River last year. That’s a major problem because 600,000 Bay Staters rely on the river as a source of drinking water. As climate change brings more severe storms, the number is expected to grow.

When an overflow happens, federal law requires municipalities operating wastewater plants to inform the Environmental Protection Agency and state officials within four hours. Congress does not currently require public notification.

According to WBUR, 14 states require their local governments to notify the public when a discharge happens. The lack of uniformed notifications is an acute problem in bodies of water that form the border between two states. The Merrimack River, for example, splits Massachusetts and New Hampshire where state and local laws vary widely.

The STOP CSO Act would require public notifications to occur within four hours of an overflow event anywhere in the country.

Moulton and Trahan wrote the bill in collaboration with leaders at the state and local level who are also pushing for action on combined sewer overflow issues.

Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday said: “As we experience greater levels of precipitation, this has a direct impact on the CSOs occurring along the Merrimack River with greater amounts of sewage being discharged into the river.  As an end user on this river, I am very concerned about the health, environmental and economic impacts to the City of Newburyport and other river communities.  Several bills have been filed with our State legislature to address timely notification but CSOs are significant in NH and federal legislation is also important here to advance notification.  I am grateful Congressman Moulton has filed this important bill to advance notification following CSOs to river communities from NH through MA.”

MA State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R – Gloucester) said: “The discharge of pollution is a serious event made even more so when it is dumped directly into one of New England’s largest public drinking water sources. The public should have access to information about sewage into these waterways so that they can avoid exposure to contaminants which could pose serious health risks.”

MA State Senator Diana DiZoglio (D-Methuen) said: “The issue of combined sewer overflows is a hazardous problem impacting communities all along the Merrimack River. While we at the state level have a role in working to determine the most sustainable, effective solutions on addressing CSOs, it is imperative that our federal partners work closely alongside us if we are going to see meaningful progress. I am grateful to the federal delegation for their focus on CSOs and look forward to joining them and residents across the Merrimack Valley as we approach this pressing issue.”

MA State Representative James Kelcourse (R-Amesbury) said: “The millions of gallons of raw sewage released into the river is a major concern for residents  in the Merrimack Valley. Due to the regional nature of this issue it is important that we collaborate with our local, state and federal officials to work towards a solution.”

This is the second in a pair of bills on which Moulton and Trahan have partnered. Earlier this year, Rep. Trahan introduced the Stop Sewage Overflow Act with Rep. Moulton as an original sponsor. The bill would expand and improve the EPA’s Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grant program. The program awards federal grants to states and municipalities for the planning, design, and construction for combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, or stormwater management.