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Boston and Beyond

April 28, 2013

DIRTY WATER: Raw sewage still contaminating New England waterways

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The federal Environmental Protection Agency has identified 772 communities across the country that routinely discharge sewage into water.

The NECIR investigation found 65 of those towns and municipalities in New England had sewage overflows through 450 pipes in 2011, the latest year for which data was obtainable from most states. For an interactive map, click here.

The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, dictated that the nation stop polluting its waters by 1985. Environmental experts say striking progress has been made, though much still needs to be done.

In 2011, sewage system operators in New England reported more than 7,700 instances when raw sewage, mixed with dirty stormwater, bypassed treatment facilities and was dumped into rivers, bays and the ocean.

Although the New England states have spent billions on new sewage systems, often under court order, each state still has regular — sometimes massive — discharges of contaminated water.

Roger Frymire, 56, a retired Cambridge software designer, has documented the pollution by spending 17 years kayaking, canoeing and wading the Charles River and other waterways to get water quality samples.

“I started because every time I would launch my canoe, no matter if I went upstream or downstream, I’d smell sewage. I got sick of it,” he recalled.

All states are required to regularly monitor bacterial levels in their waterways. But the EPA says it does not compile public records of where and how much sewage flows into those waters. Each state is supposed to report that information, but the NECIR inquiry found the data is often incomplete, inaccessible and sometimes based on little more than guesswork.

In Rhode Island, for example, none of the 54 discharge pipes of the Narragansett Bay Commission is monitored, though the state insists it can estimate the sewage output total: 1.18 billion gallons in 2011. “Individual volumes and discharges for each pipe are not available,” said Tom Brueckner, engineering manager at the commission.

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