Public Awareness for Compromised Public Waterways

By: Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives – Dec. 2017

I recently testified in front of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture on a bill I co-sponsored, S448 An Act Promoting Awareness of Safe Recreation in Public Waterways requesting that it be given a favorable recommendation. This bill will institute a statewide sewage discharge notification system so that residents will know when Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO’s) discharges make rivers unsafe.

Currently, when we experience heavy rainfall, storm water floods the sewer system and the mix of storm water and wastewater can discharge into rivers and public waterways, exposing people to contaminated water that can cause illness. Exposure to waters contaminated by untreated sewage discharges can cause inflammation of the intestines; respiratory, eye, and ear infections; skin rashes; hepatitis; and other diseases. Some discharges are treated with chlorine before entering the river, but even treated discharges can carry contaminants including heavy metals, pharmaceutical chemicals, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous that can damage ecosystems and lead to algae blooms.

The Merrimack River is a waterway that connects my district from Newburyport to North Andover and about 600,000 people drink from the River. The most recent storm that caused massive power outages also cut off power at the pumping station of the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District Wastewater Treatment Facility for 13 hours. This resulted in the discharging of millions of gallons of raw sewerage into the Merrimack River with little to no notification to the surrounding communities.

This bill will require all permitted CSOs provide a public notification alert within one hour of discharge, requires the Department of Environmental Protection to centralize CSO discharge data on their website and all CSO operators must install a discharge flow monitoring meter. S448 also requires municipalities and CSOs to post signs at outfalls of affected public access points. CSOs typically discharge hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons of sewage per extreme precipitation event. There are 181 active CSO outfalls throughout the Commonwealth, which collectively discharged 2.8 billion gallons of sewage into rivers and streams in 2011 alone.

It was important to me to go before the Committee and personally testify to how this legislation would institute a common sense protocol people need in order to protect their health. Even if the exact quantity of the sewage release is still to be determined, officials and residents in Massachusetts deserve notification about raw sewage in their rivers in real time, just like they have in other states. Moreover, wastewater treatment plants should have to have generators for back up electricity.

I have worked tirelessly to secure monies for Methuen students to have a robust rowing program on the River through the Essex Rowing, to keep the River clean from debris by working with the Clean River Project and to make the Merrimack more navigable in order to promote tourism and strengthen economic development through the River Cities Initiative. All of our efforts to protect and improve the Merrimack River are in vain if the dumping of raw sewage continues in Massachusetts and New Hampshire unchecked and unknown to the public.

State Senator Katy O’Connor Ives is a Democrat from Newburyport. She can be reached at KATHLEEN.OCONNORIVES@MASENATE.GOV