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Mass. House Passes Bill That Would Alert People When There's Sewage In The River

A view of Lawrence on the Merrimack River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A view of Lawrence on the Merrimack River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The Massachusetts House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill requiring that the public be notified when untreated sewage overflows into a waterway.

Cities discharge billions of gallons of sewage into Massachusetts rivers each year through outdated water systems called combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. The sewage contaminates waterways with pathogens like fecal coliform, sometimes for days.

"I grew up on the Merrimack River," said state Rep. James Kelcourse on the House floor Thursday. "Those of you who didn’t grow up on the river didn’t have the, uh, privilege of seeing sewer [sic] float down the river after a heavy rainstorm."

"Public health data is clear, that this has resulted in unnecessary hospitalizations and serious illness," said state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell on Thursday. Campbell co-sponsored the bill, which was first proposed in 2013.

"As climate change accelerates so do the frequency and intensity of storm events in Massachusetts that exacerbate sewer overflows," said Campbell. "The scientific evidence is clear, that the number and severity of overflow events will increase."

The bill requires sewage system operators to issue a public advisory within two hours of a sewage discharge and every eight hours thereafter until the discharge has ended, according to a press release. The advisories would be posted online, sent via email or text to subscribers, and "distributed to the local board of health, all affected municipalities, the state Department of Public Health, and the state Department of Environmental Protection."

“We are delighted to see this legislation moving forward,” said Gabby Queenan, Policy Director for the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, in a statement. “As long as three billion gallons of sewage continue to flow into our rivers every year in Massachusetts, we should strive to do better for the residents of the Commonwealth. This bill is the first critical step in the right direction.”

The bill passed the House unanimously, and now heads to the Senate.


Barbara Moran Correspondent, Climate and Environment
Barbara Moran is a correspondent on WBUR’s environmental team.



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