BOSTON — Jeff Ferrante has been boating on the Merrimack River for years and knows there's been a sewage spill when he sees patches of foam and the water turns brown and murky.
"It's beyond disgusting," said Ferrante, 60, of Newburyport. "People swim and fish in that river. I wouldn't eat anything that comes out of that water."
Last year, Ferrante got a splinter on his finger from his dock that landed him in the emergency room with a nasty infection. He suspects it was due to pollutants in the water.
"A few hours after getting the splinter, I noticed this red line traveling up my arm. I ended up in the hospital," he said. "Left untreated, who knows what could have happened to me."
Five sewage systems along the 117-mile Merrimack River reported hundreds of discharges amounting to more than 800 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater runoff in 2018 — more than double the amount from the previous year, according to data compiled by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Federal regulators last week called for more timely alerts of spills for people along the river like Ferrante, though area lawmakers say those efforts aren’t enough.
The effluent comes from dozens of overflow pipes that are part of decades-old sewer and stormwater systems designed to spill when they are inundated, usually by heavy rain.
The overflows violate the federal Clean Water Act, but the sewage treatment districts predate the law and operate under consent agreements with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that allow the discharges.
Last week, the EPA said it will require operators of three sewage treatment systems along the Merrimack River — 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 more timely discharge alerts. The updated requirements are part of renewed operating permits for those three plants.
The federal agency said the permits also will include heightened monitoring and reporting rules, and will require additional treatment of sewage to reduce bacteria and other pollutants.
The permits also will mandate that plant operators notify the public in affected downriver communities within four hours of an overflow from any of the outfall pipes.
State lawmakers who represent the region welcome the pressure from the EPA but say the proposed notification rules aren’t adequate to keep the public informed.
The lawmakers want a shorter notice and more information made available to the public, such as the volume and duration of the spills, as well as details about the health and safety risks of contaminated water.
One proposal, filed by Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, would require the state departments of Environmental Protection and Public Health to develop color-coded warnings to be displayed with safety flags at beaches, boat launches and areas along the Merrimack River, to notify the public when discharges are expected because of heavy rains in the forecast.
"We need to do a better job of letting people know when it’s safe to enter the river, or not," DiZoglio said. "By the time many people find out about a sewage discharge, they may have already been in the river."
DiZoglio said she supports the EPA's tougher monitoring and reporting regulations, but the federal government needs to step up with money and technical resources to assist sewer plant operators.
"It's important that the EPA provide those sanitary districts with the resources that they need to implement the reporting requirements," she said. "They need additional support to make this work."
Legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, would require sewage system operators to notify the public and area boards of health within two hours of an overflow.
State environmental regulators also would be required to post details of the overflows and provide regular public updates on their website.
Campbell said there also needs to be more information about the amount of sewage flowing into the river during prolonged rain events, so the public knows when it's safe to go back on the water.
"We need to make sure notification isn't just a one-time thing," she said. "The goal is to alert the public in a timely manner that sewage has been discharged, and to keep them informed."
Timely notification needed
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.
Environmentalists say large and frequent overflows pose health risks to those who use the river for boating and swimming, 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 gastrointestinal diseases.
Treatment system 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 diluted by fast-moving river water, 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 required upgrades.
Ferrante said short of capping the outfalls permanently, timely notification "needs to become mandatory for the safety of everyone who uses the river."
"They can't fix it right now, but it would be nice to know when the river is unhealthy," he said. "It's the least thing they can do."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.