BOSTON — Lawmakers want operators of aging sewage systems to keep the public better informed about discharges into the Merrimack River and other bodies of water.

On Thursday, the state House of Representatives approved a proposal to require sewage system operators to notify the public and local boards of health within two hours of an overflow, and provide updates every eight hours until the discharges cease. Environmental regulators would be required to post details of the overflows and provide regular online updates.

Lawmakers said there also must be more information about the amount of sewage spilled during prolonged rains, so the public knows when it's safe to go back in the water.

"State government has a responsibility to ensure residents are notified of sewage discharges in a timely manner so that they can avoid serious health repercussions,” said Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, a primary sponsor of the legislation.

Campbell said the coronavirus pandemic heightens the concerns, with environmental regulators studying whether sewage discharges contain traces of the pathogen. Untreated sewage also carries pathogens such as fecal coliform and bacteria that cause dysentery, hepatitis and other gastrointestinal diseases.

“With recent research suggesting that sewage discharges may serve as a pathway for exposure to COVID-19, consistent public notification is now all the more critical,” she said.

State Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown, highlighted the CSO notification system as a way to keep recreational users of the Merrimack River safe from pollution. A long-term goal, he said, is stopping CSOs from happening altogether. 

“We’ve known for a long time that CSOs occur, but the public hasn't known when it’s safe to go back in the water," said Mirra. "The river is part if out tourism economy. People come from all over to use the Merrimack, and this notification system will provide the public with better information on when the river can be safely used again after a CSO.”

The changes, several years in the making, come in response to recent spills into the Merrimack River from dozens of outflow pipes, which were supposed to be sealed years ago. The outflows were designed to relieve pressure on antiquated sewage systems during heavy rains or periods of snow melt.

In 2018, five sewage systems along the 117-mile Merrimack River discharged nearly 800 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater runoff — double the amount from the previous year, according to state data.

Environmentalists say such large and frequent overflows pose health risks to those who use the river for recreation as well as communities that draw drinking water from it. An estimated 600,000 people get drinking water from the Merrimack River, including 80,000 in Lawrence, according to the state.

A lack of public notice about the discharges means few people even know when they happen.

Under current state law, sewage treatment systems are required to notify the Department of Environmental Protection immediately after a discharge and no later than 24 hours.

Exactly who gets notified depends on state and federal permits, the size of the treatment system, where the overflow pipe is located, and if water is drawn downstream for drinking.

Sewage system operators say discharges represent a minute portion of tens of billions of gallons of sewage they handle, and treat, every year. They also note that discharges are diluted by fast-moving river water, in the case of the Merrimack, decreasing potential health risks within a few hours.

Closing the outfalls would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, they say, while federal funding hasn't been made available to pay for the upgrades.

Rep. James Kelcourse, R-Amesbury, expressed excitement about the bill for Merrimack Valley residents, but emphasized the importance of working to end CSOs by updating equipment at wastewater treatment facilities along the Merrimack.

"This is a great first step in the right direction, but we still have more work to eliminate CSOs, to update the infrastructure with more equipment that goes right to treatment facilities," Kelcourse said.

The proposal now moves to the Senate for consideration.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Staff writer Jack Shea contributed to this story.

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