After years of lobbying, it was a big moment for environmental groups when Governor Charlie Baker righted what they considered an outrageous wrong, signing into law a requirement that wastewater treatment plants alert the public after dumping untreated, or partially treated, sewage into state waters.
At a February signing ceremony, Baker described the legislation as “one of those bills that gets to your desk that you’re glad got there.”
But now environmental advocates and some authors of the long-awaited legislation are raising concerns that state environmental officials are creating a significant loophole in the new law. Recently released draft rules would exempt treatment plants from requirements to notify the public after they discharge “blended” sewage, a combination of treated and partially treated wastewater.
Officials who oversee treatment plants contend that the risks from such sewage are limited and that there’s no need to alert the public. But lawmakers and environmental advocates argue that releasing blended sewage into state waters poses a threat to public health and obliges the plants to notify local residents.
“Blended sewage is still sewage entering our rivers; it has not been fully treated, so it poses a public health risk that residents deserve to know about,” said Representative Linda Dean Campbell, a Methuen Democrat who is an author of the law. “The intent of the law is to require timely public notification of all sewage discharges that are untreated or partially treated, and blended sewage clearly falls under that umbrella. Requiring lesser notification for blended sewage creates a confusing, patchwork approach that makes it difficult for residents to get the full picture of what’s going on.”
Although federal and state laws have curbed such pollution in recent decades, sewage discharges remain a persistent problem that will likely worsen in the coming years with climate change expected to bring more heavy precipitation to the Northeast.
Many of the region’s treatment plants become overloaded when too much rain falls in a short period, such as during the recent nor’easter that walloped the region. The plants are deluged with a combination of runoff and sewage, forcing them to release the noxious mix into the nearest rivers or coastal waters, mainly as raw sewage or partially treated wastewater.
More than $2 billion has been spent in recent decades to reduce the amount of sewage discharged into state rivers, from roughly 9.5 billion gallons a year in the 1990s to less than 3.5 billion gallons in 2015, state officials said. For years, the treatment plants discharged the sewage without informing the public, endangering the health of swimmers, fishermen, and others.
Sewage can carry bacteria, parasites, viruses, and chemical toxins that can cause infections, dysentery, and potentially cholera. A 2004 estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that as many as 3.5 million Americans get sick annually from recreational contact with sewage-contaminated waters.
The new law requires treatment plants to issue a raft of public advisories within two hours of releasing sewage into state waters, with updates every eight hours until they stop. The law requires that the advisories provide specific information, such as the location of the discharge, the date and duration, estimated volume, affected waters, and any precautionary measures residents should take. They’re also required to alert the community’s largest media organizations; send e-mails and text messages 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 the plants from most of those requirements when they discharge blended sewage. They would only be required to post a notice of the discharge on their own, often rarely viewed, websites, which environmental advocates 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 dumped into the rivers, and now, people will only know some of the time.”
Those who oversee treatment plants say there’s good reason to exempt blended sewage from the required alerts.
While the consistency of the wastewater may be different than what usually gets released from the plants, the resulting discharge doesn’t 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, who oversees one of the state’s largest treatment plants. “It shouldn’t matter what happens inside the fence of the plant. If the water going out the door meets the permit, you shouldn’t need a notification.”
Alerting the public to such discharges would cause unnecessary alarm, he said.
“What’s the advantage of the public to be notified, if it meets the same standard as every other day?” Schimmel said. “It’s like we’re being forced to alert the public of a violation that’s not a violation. We might as well put the notice out there every day.”
State environmental officials said they vigorously debated whether to exempt blended sewage from most of the notification requirements, with some echoing concerns by EPA scientists that there’s a material difference between the contents of such discharges and normal flow from treatment plants.
But they also noted that such releases are relatively rare.
For example, while 11 percent of wastewater from the Lowell Wastewater Treatment Plant over the past decade was blended, less than 1 percent of discharges from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant were blended.
“MassDEP specifically called out its proposed regulations for blending events, because it wants to ensure that the public is aware of the proposed regulation and has the opportunity to weigh in,” said Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, in a statement. “We’ll review these comments carefully and consider the feedback we receive, as we finalize the regulations.”
Some river advocates echoed the concerns raised by the operators of treatment plants, saying they worry about “alert fatigue” and want the state to focus on notifying the public about the most dangerous discharges. More alarm bells should be sounded when there’s a release of, say, 75 million gallons as opposed to a discharge of 40,000 gallons, they said.
“We are much more concerned about the timely reporting of the volume of discharges and giving river users some guidance on whether a current discharge poses a threat to their health,” said John Macone, a policy specialist with the Merrimack River Watershed Council.
But others who monitor the water quality in local watersheds argued that greater transparency is warranted for any sewage released into frequently used waterways, even if it’s blended.
“If untreated sewage didn’t cause public health and environmental impacts, then we wouldn’t treat it,” said Julie Wood, deputy director of the Charles River Watershed Association. “In the Charles, we have multiple wastewater treatment plants that discharge directly to the river. If these plants are unable to fully treat all the sewage at the plant and discharge partially treated waste into the river, the public has a right to know that.”