Public Notification of Sewer Discharges to Surface Waters Now the Law

Last week we asked you to send an email or call Governor Baker encouraging him to sign a bill that would require the public to be notified if there were spills of untreated sewage into our waterways. On Tuesday January 12, 2021, Governor Baker signed the bill into law thanks, in part, to your support for it! Thank you!

What is the bill?

The Sewage Notification bill (H.4921) was signed into law by Governor Baker on January 12, 2021. The bill will require public notification within 2 hours of sewage discharges to the waters of the Commonwealth of untreated or partially treated sewage. The public will be able to sign up for text and email alerts to be notified when harmful sewage discharges occur nearby. In addition, the two largest news organizations that report on local news in the area of the discharge must be notified.

How and when does sewage get released? 

Wastewater treatment plants can be overwhelmed by incoming freshwater from one of two pathways – ground and rain water seeping into sewer pipes and from combined sewer and stormwater systems (CSOs).  Here on the South Shore the seeping of water into sewer pipes is more common than CSOs but they do exist in older, more developed areas like Boston and Weymouth. When the volumes are too high for the treatment plant to deal with they must release or risk backing up sewage into residents and businesses. 

When will this start?

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), along with the US EPA, is responsible for overseeing permits for discharges to our waters. MassDEP will issue regulations within a year of the bill being signed into law and shall take effect by early July of 2022.

Who on the South Shore is Impacted?

There are several wastewater treatment plants that discharge to surface waters including two in our own watershed, one in Scituate to Herring River and one in Rockland to French’s Stream (a headwater to the Indian Head and North River). But there are several other wastewater treatment plants that discharge to surface waters that could be impacted including Cohasset (discharge into Cohasset Harbor), Plymouth (discharges into Plymouth Bay, Marshfield (discharges into Massachusetts Bay), and Hull (discharge into Massachusetts Bay).

The notification will not only protect people and their pets from entering contaminated waters, but also put a spotlight on the issue for the public to support investment in failing wastewater infrastructure. 

Thank you to the bill’s sponsors and legislative leaders and to our many partner organizations for their advocacy on this issue. The bill passed unanimously by the House and Senator Patrick O’Connor voted in favor of this. Please reach out thank them and the Governor for their support for protecting our waters.