BOSTON — Congressional lawmakers are pressing for more timely public notice of sewage discharges into rivers, lakes and other bodies of water in Massachusetts and elsewhere.
A proposal filed Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, and Lori Trahan, D-Westford, would require local governments anywhere in the country to notify the public within four hours of a sewage discharge from combined sewer overflows. The outfalls are part of decades-old sewer and stormwater systems designed to spill when they are inundated, usually by heavy rain.
To help communities cover the cost, the proposal would allow local governments to use federal grant money to pay for setting up the notification systems.
In a statement, Moulton blamed the Trump administration and Congress for their inability to reach an agreement on funding for much-needed infrastructure improvements.
“Washington’s failure to address the nation’s outdated infrastructure means more than just awful commutes — it threatens people’s health and our economy,” he said. “Until our leaders find the willingness to work together, they should at least create alert systems so we know when hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage are flowing into our region’s rivers.”
Their proposal comes in response to recent sewage spills into the Merrimack River from dozens of overflow pipes, which were supposed to have been sealed years ago.
Last year, five sewage systems along the 117-mile Merrimack River discharged nearly 800 million gallons of sewage and stormwater runoff — double the amount from the previous year, according to state data.
Nationwide, combined sewer systems are still in use in 772 communities and affect more than 40 million people, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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 their drinking water from the Merrimack, including 80,000 in Lawrence, according to the state.
A lack of public notification about the discharges means few people even know when they happen.
On Beacon Hill, state lawmakers are considering bills related to the CSO discharges, many that seek to improve to public notification of sewage spills along the river.
The EPA is also pressuring sewage plant operators to clean up their act.
The federal agency has said it would require three sewage treatment systems along the Merrimack — the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District in North Andover, Haverhill’s treatment plant and another plant in Lowell — to reduce the bacteria flowing into the river and to issue discharge alerts within four hours of a spill.
Earlier this year, Trahan and Moulton filed a bill that would expand and improve the EPA’s stormwater grant program, which helps fund local sewage treatment and stormwater system upgrades.
Trahan said the federal government “has an obligation” to help communities cover the cost of upgrading sewer systems, but also to make sure people along the river are made aware of spills in a timely manner.
“We can’t wait,” she said in a statement. “We must take precautions to alert residents when contaminants are released into the river possibly jeopardizing their health and wellbeing.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.