, Newburyport, MA

March 12, 2011

Plastic discs cause beach closure

Discs may be contaminated

Staff Reports

— NEWBURYPORT -- Thousands of small plastic discs from a New Hampshire sewage treatment plant are floating down the Merrimack River and washing up on local beaches, prompting officials to issue a health warning and close local beaches.

The white plastic discs are about twice the diameter of a quarter and have a screen mesh on them. They washed out of the Hooksett, N.H., sewage treatment plant last week, which is located on the banks of the Merrimack River. They've steadily made their way downstream and are now washing up by the scores along Plum Island, Salisbury Beach, and all along the Merrimack River.

Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday said Salisbury and Plum Island beaches have been closed, as has Cashman Park in Newburyport, where many of the discs have washed ashore.

It's unclear if the discs pose a health risk, but officials are taking precautions because they could potentially contain bacteria from the sewage treatment plant. The discs are used in the process of screening and treating sewage.

Holaday urged people to avoid contact with the discs. Dogs are also considered at risk, and so owners should not let their pets come in contact.

"Anywhere people have access to water, they should not touch them," she said.

Jim Martin, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, told WMUR that the discs should not be handled without gloves.

"We don't want children playing with these sorts of things because the potential exists that bacteria from the wastewater treatment process could still be on these discs,” Martin told WMUR.

Holaday, state Rep. Michael Costello, and Newburyport and Newbury officials were out in force on Saturday, monitoring the location of the discs and calling in assistance from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Holaday said the discs have been sent to the state lab for testing, and she hopes to have results back shiortly. The city also sent out an automated phone message to homeowners warning them about the discs.

State offiicials plan to be at the beach on Monday to begin a massive clean-up of the discs, which washed out of the Hooksett plant last Sunday during an intense rainstorm.

Holaday said the state DEP commissioner Ken Kimmel contacted his New Hampshire counterpart today to discuss the situation and the clean-up efforts. It's not clear why New Hampshire officials had not warned Massachusetts about the release of the discs.