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UPDATE: What we’ve been doing about the Merrimack River’s sewage overflows

UPDATE: What we’ve been doing about the Merrimack River’s sewage overflows

It’s been just over three months since the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District made statewide headlines after it lost power and dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Merrimack River. That incident caused an uproar throughout the Merrimack Valley—many people, including some public officials, had no idea that sewage was being dumped into a river that provides drinking water to more than a half-million residents. 

Over the past 3 months, the Merrimack River Watershed Council has been working at a fast pace to fill in the many questions that citizens, fellow environmental groups, public officials and state lawmakers have posed. We’ve amassed a significant amount of data on these incidents—known as Combined Sewer Overflow events, or CSOs for short. 

Here’s a quick update on what we’ve done:

  • Sent Freedom of Information Requests and other inquiries to the 4 largest sources of raw sewage discharges (the treatment plants serving Manchester, greater Lowell, greater Lawrence and Haverhill) seeking detailed records for their CSO incidents dating back to 2010. We’ve also sought related information on power back-up systems, plant licensing, plant capacity, and CSO mitigation plans. We’ve received various levels of data — ranging from comprehensive to inadequate, depending on the plant.
  • Met with the managers of the Manchester, Haverhill, and greater Lawrence sewage plants to seek more detailed information. (We also plan to meet with Lowell’s management team.) 
  • Requested and received public records from the Environmental Protection Agency on Merrimack River CSO events.
  • Worked with Massachusetts state legislators to advocate for a bill requiring sewage plants to alert the public whenever CSO sewage is released into the river.  We’re hopeful that the bill (H. 2935 / S. 448) will be voted favorably out of committee in the coming weeks.
  • At the request of Merrimack Valley state Rep. Linda Campbell, we drafted a bill requiring that all sewage treatment plants in the Commonwealth have adequate back-up power subject to periodic state inspection. 
  • Shared our findings with local media to help provide more in-depth information to the public.
  • Met with local citizens and community leaders concerned about CSOs who want to see positive change and a cleaner Merrimack River.

The October 30 incident at the Greater Lawrence sewage plant was a small “drop in the river” compared to how much sewage gets dumped into the Merrimack each year.  Even these days, the annual total of untreated sewage approaches a half billion gallons.

The public’s interest in these CSO events is very high.  In the dozens of conversations we’ve had with people throughout the Merrimack Valley, it’s become crystal clear that people want to know much more about the problem—as well as the short-term and long-term solutions.  

MRWC is developing a multi-part plan that addresses the need for information and action.  In the coming weeks, we’ll be rolling out a new initiative to bring together citizen concern, political engagement and the renewed attention of sewage treatment plant managers for a much-needed public discussion we’re calling “Get to Know Your CSO — and Stop the Flow.”