BOSTON — Sewage treatment plant operators would be required to give more timely public notice of discharges into rivers, lakes and the ocean under a proposal passed in the final hours of the legislative session Wednesday.
The measure would require operators to notify the public and local boards of health within two hours of a combined sewer overflow, and provide updates every eight hours until the spills cease.
“Many citizens have fought for this for years – and they will now be able to receive individual notification of sewage spills,” said Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, one of the primary sponsors of the bill sent to Gov. Charlie Baker for his signature.
“State government has a responsibility to ensure that our residents and local leaders are notified of public health concerns,” she said.
Last year, five sewage systems along the 117-mile Merrimack River discharged about 350 million gallons of sewage and stormwater runoff, according to the Merrimack Valley Watershed Council.
The effluent comes from overflow pipes built into decades-old sewer and stormwater systems, which were designed to spill when they become inundated.
Closing up the outfalls will require hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding, which isn’t forthcoming. In the interim, river communities want better notice about spills.
“It puts the issue on the front burner,” said John Macone, the council’s outreach coordinator. “When people are aware of it, they start to ask why it isn’t getting fixed.”
Macone noted that sewage plants along the river have approved public notification in the past few years amid outrage over the discharges and scrutiny from federal and state officials.
Plant operators also have been pursuing upgrades to their systems to help prevent large and frequent discharges.
Environmentalists say the overflows pose health risks to those who use the river for recreation as well as communities that draw drinking water from it.
Untreated sewage carries pathogens such as fecal coliform and bacteria that can cause dysentery, hepatitis and other diseases.
An estimated 600,000 people receive their drinking water from the Merrimack, including 80,000 in Lawrence, according to the state.
Sewage plant operators say discharges account for only a small portion of tens of billions of gallons of sewage treated every year. They also note that discharges are quickly diluted by the fast-moving river, decreasing potential health risks within a few hours.
Under state law, sewage 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.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires several plant operators along the Merrimack — Greater Lawrence Sanitary District in North Andover, Haverhill’s treatment plant and another plant in Lowell — to notify the public in downriver communities within four hours of an overflow.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.