By Bob Katzen

Governor Baker signed into law legislation that would institute a statewide notification system so that Massachusetts residents know within two hours of the start of any combined sewer overflows (CSO) discharge if their rivers are unsafe for recreation or public use.

The notifications would continue every eight hours until the discharge ends and then within two hours of the end of the discharge.

Combined sewers exist in 19 Bay State communities which tend to be in older industrialized areas. These sewers are those that collect stormwater and wastewater together. CSOs happen during heavy storms when stormwater floods the sewers and spills out of specially designed overflow channels into rivers. Untreated sewage that can carry bacteria and endanger human health may be present in the overflow and this may disrupt local ecosystems.

The bill requires sewage system operators to issue a public advisory of any overflows to the state Departments of Environmental Protection and Public Health, local boards of health, all municipalities that are directly impacted, individuals who subscribe to an e-mail or text notification; post on a public website run by the sewage system operator and report to the two largest local news organizations.

“With this bill, Massachusetts is taking a big step toward a future where all of our rivers and beaches are safe for swimming, all of the time,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts. “Despite significant progress, too many of our rivers and beaches are still polluted. Our report, Safe for Swimming, found that 257 beaches in Massachusetts experienced at least one day in 2019 with potentially unsafe levels of fecal bacteria. Antiquated sewer systems are one big source of this pollution, along with runoff from roads and parking lots. We can and must do a better job of keeping waste out of our water. This bill will ensure the public’s right to know about sewage pollution in our waterways. We believe that more awareness of the problem will lead to more action on solutions.”

“With a COVID-19 connection to sewage, this legislation becomes more critical to preserve public health,” said co-sponsor Rep. Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen). “Many citizens have fought for this for years—and they will now be able to receive individual notification of sewage spills. State government has a responsibility to ensure that our residents and local leaders are notified of public health concerns. This legislation also has a huge economic component. Our waterways in Massachusetts are treasured by all, and we all want to be able to enjoy and respect these treasures. Their viability is critical to local economies. Now, our next battle will be to upgrade our sewage treatment facilities to prevent CSOs.”

“People who kayak or boat or fish in our rivers need to know when there are discharges, so they can avoid exposure to the bacteria, parasites and viruses—including COVID-19 19—in that sewage,” said co-sponsor Sen. Pet Jehlen (D-Somerville). “This bill will ensure that residents will be notified when there is a discharge. The EPA says people should stay away from sewage-contaminated water for 72 hours, and this law will give them the information so they can stay safe.”

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