State officials accused of flawing new law to protect public from sewage

Officials who oversee the treatment plants argue that the risks of such wastewater are limited and that there is no need to alert the public. But lawmakers and conservationists argue that the discharge of mixed sewage into state waters poses a threat to public health and forces factories to notify local residents.

“Mixed wastewater is always wastewater that enters our rivers; it has not been fully treated, so it poses a public health risk that residents deserve to be informed about, ”said Representative Linda Dean Campbell, a Democrat from Methuen and lawmaker. “The intent of the law is to require timely public notification of all sewage discharges that are not or partially treated, and mixed sewage clearly falls under this umbrella. Requiring less notification for mixed wastewater creates a disparate and confusing approach that makes it difficult for residents to get a full picture of what’s going on.

Although federal and state laws have reduced such pollution in recent decades, sewage discharges remain a persistent problem that will likely worsen in the years to come with climate change expected to result in more rainfall in the region. the North-east.

Many treatment plants in the region are overloaded when too much rain falls in a short period of time, such as during the recent northeast that hit the region. Factories are inundated with a combination of runoff and sewage, forcing them to discharge the harmful mixture into the nearest rivers or coastal waters, mostly in the form of raw sewage or partially treated sewage.

More than $ 2 billion has been spent in recent decades to reduce the amount of sewage discharged into state rivers from about 9.5 billion gallons per year in the 1990s to less than 3 , 5 billion gallons in 2015, state officials said. For years, sewage treatment plants have discharged sewage without informing the public, endangering the health of bathers, fishermen and others.

Wastewater can carry bacteria, parasites, viruses and chemical toxins that can cause infections, dysentery and potentially cholera. A 2004 estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency found that up to 3.5 million Americans fall ill each year as a result of recreational contact with wastewater contaminated water.

The new law requires treatment plants to issue a series of public notices within two hours of the wastewater being released into state waters, with updates every eight hours until they are released. stop. The law requires notices to provide specific information, such as location of the discharge, date and duration, estimated volume, affected waters, and any precautionary measures residents should take. They are also required to alert the larger media organizations in the community; send emails and texts to residents who sign up to receive alerts; and in some cases spread the word through social media and on specially designated websites.

But the draft rules would exempt factories from most of those requirements when discharging mixed wastewater. They would only be required to post a rejection notice on their own, often seldom-visited websites, which conservationists say is insufficient.

“This clearly undermines the intent of the law,” said Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance. “The purpose of the law was to let people know when sewage is being discharged into rivers, and now people will only know from time to time.”

Those who oversee treatment plants say there are good reasons to exempt mixed wastewater from required alerts.

While the consistency of the wastewater may be different from what is typically released by factories, the resulting discharge does not violate their permits, they say.

“It still meets the same water quality requirements,” said Josh Schimmel, executive director of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, which oversees one of the state’s largest treatment plants. “It doesn’t matter what happens inside the factory fence. If the water coming out the door is within the permit, you shouldn’t need a notification.

Alerting the public to such discharges would cause an unnecessary alarm, he said.

“What is the advantage for the public to be warned, if it meets the same standard as every other day?” Said Schimmel. “It’s like we have to alert the public to a violation that isn’t. We might as well publish the notice every day.

State environmental officials said they have vigorously debated whether to exempt mixed wastewater from most notification requirements, with some concerns from EPA scientists that there is a significant difference. between the content of these discharges and the normal flow of the treatment plants.

But they also noted that such releases are relatively rare.

For example, while 11% of the wastewater from the Lowell wastewater treatment plant over the past decade has been mixed, less than 1% of the discharge from the Deer Island wastewater treatment plant in the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority were mixed.

“MassDEP has specifically called its draft regulations for mixing events because it wants to make sure the public is aware of the proposed regulations and has an opportunity to weigh in,” said Martin Suuberg, State Department commissioner of environmental protection, in a declaration. “We will carefully review these comments and consider the comments we receive as we finalize the settlements. “

Some defenders of the river echoed concerns expressed by operators of sewage treatment plants, saying they were concerned about “alert fatigue” and wanted the state to focus on notifying the public of the most wasteful discharges. more dangerous. More alarm bells should be sounded when there is a release of, say, 75 million gallons as opposed to a release of 40,000 gallons, they said.

“We are much more concerned with timely reporting of the volume of releases and giving river users guidance on whether a current release poses a threat to their health,” said John Macone. , Policy Specialist at Merrimack River Watershed Council.

But others who monitor water quality in local watersheds have argued that greater transparency is warranted for all wastewater discharged into frequently used waterways, even if mixed.

“If untreated wastewater had no impact on public health and the environment, we wouldn’t be treating it,” said Julie Wood, deputy director of the Charles River Watershed Association. “In the Charles, we have several wastewater treatment plants that flow directly into the river. If these factories are unable to fully treat all of the plant’s wastewater and discharge partially treated waste into the river, the public has a right to know. “


David Abel can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @davabel.


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