Billions of gallons of raw sewage and contaminated stormwater surge every year into the waterways and onto the streets of New England, as a 40-year-old pledge to clean America’s lakes, rivers and streams remains unfulfilled.
That is the conclusion of a six-month inquiry by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting — the first comprehensive look at where, how often and how much sewage flows into New England waterways and the first to map the peril.
“I’m certain the general population is unaware that raw sewage is being discharged to their streets and rivers,” said the executive director of the Mystic River Watershed Association, Ekongkar Singh Khalsa. “I’ve walked around Wellesley or Newton after a storm, and suggested people should not let their dog walk on this. They thought I was mad.”
Stormwater, burst pipes and antiquated infrastructure turn manholes into geysers and basements into fetid pools of sludge — all due to accidental overflows. But the largest assault on our waterways is a design fault hidden underground: old sewage systems that mix storm runoff with raw sewage and propel the contaminated combination, untreated, into rivers, streams, harbors and bays.
Massachusetts, the most populous New England state, produces the most of these “combined sewer overflows,” despite decades of investment in sewage systems in Boston and other municipalities. In 2011, approximately 2.8 billion gallons of sewage water spilled through 181 pipes throughout the state. The NECIR investigation determined more than 7 billion gallons spewed into waterways across New England, the first such compilation of an annual total.
Connecticut discharged about 1.5 billion gallons through 125 active “outfall” pipes, while Maine and Rhode Island put more than 1 billion gallons into their waterways. These discharges send contamination levels soaring after rainfalls, closing beaches and prompting bans on shellfishing.
“I don’t swim in waters right after it rained,” said Suzanne Condon, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “I am pretty confident that there’s going to be a problem.”