During the final hours of the legislative session, the Massachusetts House and Senate enacted, An Act promoting awareness of sewage pollution in public waters.
The bill now sits on Gov. Charles Baker’s desk, where he has 10 days after the bill’s enactment to sign it.
This is an important step in protecting public health, our state’s water quality, and upgrading outdated water infrastructure. H.4921, sponsored by Rep. Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen), Sen. Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville), and Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), will require water suppliers to establish a public notification system to let Massachusetts residents know when there’s been a sewage discharge in their area. Up until now, residents had no way to know when sewage was present in their local waterways, running the risk of unknowingly coming in contact with harmful bacteria and toxins that could cause serious health impacts. Increasing awareness about archaic infrastructure is the first step in the long journey of updating and replacing aging combined sewer systems with modern systems that are cleaner and safer for our communities.
The Massachusetts Rivers Alliance led the advocacy effort , and is thrilled to see the Massachusetts legislature pass this common-sense bill. Mass Rivers credits the passage of this bill to hard work by a diverse and persistent coalition of legislative leaders, environmental advocates, and municipal leaders over several years.
“Massachusetts residents have a right to know if there is sewage in their rivers, especially this year when we’ve turned to nature for safe recreation and peace of mind,” said Julia Blatt, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance. “Mass Rivers appreciates the leadership of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Jehlen, Representative Campbell, and Representative Provost on this issue, and we are thrilled to see it approved by the legislature. Passage of this bill is an important step toward raising awareness of this problem, bringing our water infrastructure out of the nineteenth and into the twenty-first century.”
“With a COVID-19 connection to sewage, this legislation becomes more critical to preserve public health,” said Rep. Campbell. “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. Our next battle will be to upgrade our sewage treatment facilities to prevent CSOs.”
“Combined Sewer Overflows may not be the first thing on many people’s minds when they head to one of the Commonwealth’s many beautiful waterways, but right now, public health is on all of our minds,” said Sen. Jehlen. “We need this notification system so everyone can make informed decisions, protect their health, and safely enjoy our natural resources.”
“Passage of this bill could not be more timely,” said Rep. Provost. “When people utilize our rivers and ponds, they deserve to be informed about the lurking health hazards from germ-laden sewer outfalls. Especially given the scientific uncertainty about the infectiousness of solid waste containing excreted coronavirus, we should be enabling the people of Massachusetts to make informed decisions about when it’s safe to go in the water.”
“It is a relief to know that the public health is protected and residents in Massachusetts will finally have the awareness that municipalities are discharging sewage into their rivers,” said Patrick Herron, Executive Director of the Mystic River Watershed Association “and this would not have happened without the leadership of Senator Jehlen, Representative Campbell, and Representative Provost and the tireless advocacy of Mass Rivers Alliance.”
“In this day and age, most people probably assume that the public would have to be notified if there was a sewage spill at their favorite, beach, swimming hole or paddling spot, but that hasn’t been the case until now,” said Ian Cooke, Executive Director of the Neponset River Watershed Association. “We are very excited to see this common sense requirement to protect public health, wildlife and our waterways finally moving forward.”
I believe this bill is critically important for all communities adjacent to waterways who are subjected to sewage discharges,” said Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday. “As an end user on the Merrimack River, Newburyport experiences combined sewage and stormwater discharges from upriver communities nearly every time it rains. We have been working with the Merrimack River District Commission on developing a pilot notification system to alert our residents, boaters, fishermen, swimmers and others from using the river and beaches when there are high bacteria levels. In order to fully implement this system we need to know when CSOs are occurring upriver. I am very grateful to our legislators and the many advocates who have worked on this initiative for several years.”
Baker must sign H.4921 into law within 10 days of its enactment, after which time the Department of Environmental Protection will work with sewage operators on establishing a public notification system.