NEWBURYPORT — Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown, discussed issues relating to the Merrimack River, education funding and an opportunity for healthy civil discourse during his appearance Saturday on Local Pulse.

In seeking legislation to address local issues, Mirra told Local Pulse host Joe DiBiase that solutions to problems begin with awareness.

Mirra is a member of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses, the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, and the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.

Legislators were tipped off that wastewater containing chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, was being dumped into the Merrimack River.

"People were furious, and rightfully so," Mirra said on the internet radio broadcast.

The wastewater was coming from Turnkey Landfill in Rochester, New Hampshire, and was then transported for treatment to a plant in Lowell.

"They get most of the chemicals and contaminants out of it, but PFAS are so small that they were going through," Mirra said. "They didn't have the proper equipment to filter that out, so the PFAS were being released into the river." 

PFAS are considered "forever chemicals" because they do not leave the human body.

"It never really breaks down or degrades, and it can accumulate in the human body," Mirra said. "Keep in mind, that river is a drinking supply for hundreds of thousands of people." In addition, people swim, boat and fish in the Merrimack.

Fortunately, Mirra said the dumping of PFAS was able to be stopped "almost overnight," and he credited articles in The Daily News for drawing attention to the problem.

"They reported a serious issue, readers heard about it, they contacted their local officials, the elected officials acted," Mirra said.

He explained that not all issues can be dealt with so quickly, but speaking up about them helps to inspire action. Another concern for the Merrimack River has to do with combined sewage overflows.

"We cannot stop combined sewage overflows the way we stopped PFAS," Mirra said. "It's a completely different ballgame. We're talking about five major sewage plants that are dumping sewage into the river. It took many years to do that, and it'll take a lot of years to stop it."

The shared system collects surface runoff and combines it with wastewater to be treated at a facility. When it rains or snows, though, the volume of wastewater can reach capacity and so the untreated excess is then directed to water sources such as the river.

Communities along the Merrimack, in the short term, are keeping residents informed through a notification system. That way, people at least know when the river is especially toxic.

Also on Local Pulse, Mirra talked about becoming an organizer for Better Angels, a national citizens movement seeking to reduce political polarization through workshops and other initiatives.

"We've gotten to a very bad place in this country," he said. "We kind of need to retreat from that place and find out a way that we can at least talk to each other and not be so divisive."

The representative is working with others to bring liberals and conservatives together for a workshop in Newbury next month. In working with people from both sides of the political spectrum, Mirra hopes they can find common ground.

"We're going to discuss ways to improve the civility and the civil discourse in the commonwealth," he said.

With the guidance of Better Angels, people can work to understand opposite points of view and come together to talk about issues in a professional and courteous manner.

"There's a reason why things are not getting done in Congress — we are able to get them done on Beacon Hill — and I think it's tied to this division, this polarization," he said.

Mirra maintained a perfect voting record throughout the first half of the 2019-20 legislative session, participating in 142 roll calls votes cast in the House between January and November, according to a press release.

One of the major bills that Mirra was most proud to see pass was the Student Opportunity Act. The education reform bill, which has been over 20 years in the making, will provide at least $1.5 billion in additional state aid for public schools over the next seven years.

While he said much of the money may go to "big-city schools," Mirra is optimistic and happy that funding for expenses such as transportation and special education was included in the bill.

"This is a major win," he told DiBiase. "This is a major success story. It took a lot of time. People have been fighting for this for a very long time."

Local Pulse airs live each Saturday from the newsroom of The Daily News on Liberty Street.

To listen live Saturday or to download previous shows, go to newburyportnews.com/LocalPulse.

Staff writer Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at halterisio@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.

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