NEWBURYPORT — Days of beach closures ended yesterday, but the yeoman's work continued to clear the plastic-mesh disks dumped by a New Hampshire sewer plant last week.
On Beacon Hill, lawmakers asked the governor to declare an environmental state of emergency because of the cleanup of millions of disks used to feast on bacteria in wastewater.
But in the state's eyes, the situation along the coast is not an emergency — not yet at least.
"They're still trying to assess what the cost is going to be," said Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport.
The final cost will determine whether a state of emergency can be declared, thereby allowing the county to access federal money, Costello said.
What that amount needs to be was unclear yesterday.
The disks arrived in the Greater Newburyport area following heavy rains in northern New Hampshire in early March.
The rain swelled through the wastewater treatment plant in Hooksett, N.H., causing 4 million to 8 million disks to get loose. The disks traveled down the river and washed up into the shores of Seabrook, Salisbury, and Newburyport last weekend, and many thousands more are lodged along the 50 miles of riverbank between Hooksett and the sea.
Volunteers organized a cleanup on Thursday, and another one will be held today. Yesterday, state employees and state contractors spent the day working along the coast.
At Salisbury Beach Reservation, state Department of Conservation and Recreation employees picked up disks the high tide was bringing in as a few beachgoers finally had the chance to walk along the coast.
On Plum Island, a large contingent of Clean Harbor employees worked to do the same along the island and in Newburyport's Joppa Flats, where some of the toughest work will be, as the disks get netted in thick mud.
State health agencies in New Hampshire and Massachusetts said the disks contain low levels of human waste bacteria and are not a serious health hazard, as originally thought.
For the first time in days at both beaches, people were allowed to sit on the beach after closures were lifted.
Mark Eaton of Salisbury was out with his dog, Louie, on Salisbury Beach yesterday, and he wasn't concerned about the dangers from the disks anymore.
"Honestly, I'm not nervous. I don't think there's bacteria on them," Eaton said.
Parker River Wildlife Refuge manager Graham Taylor said he's treating the disks as litter and not a serious health concern for the wildlife.
"From what we've been hearing from the (state Department of Environmental Protection), it's not as major an issue as it was," Taylor said. "It's more of a litter issue."
Taylor presumes the reserve will be dealing with the disks for months, as some disks buried in the sand are re-exposed with the tide.
Taylor said crews have been out checking the marshes, and no disks have been found on the saltwater marsh side.
"I wouldn't be surprised, down the road, we find some down the marshes," Taylor said.
The disks are large enough that animals can't swallow them, and no dead animals have been reported.
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