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.”
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.
Because the sewage is diluted and disperses, regional health authorities say it is difficult to definitively link any particular instances of disease or infection to these discharges. But sewage carries pathogens — bacteria, parasites and viruses — as well as chemical toxins. The pathogens can cause infections, dysentery, and potentially even cholera. For high risk populations: children, the elderly and those with immunity—the result could be serious, even deadly.
An often-cited EPA estimate from 2004 concluded between 1.8 million and 3.5 million Americans get sick annually from recreational contact with sewage-contaminated waters.
Health authorities in Massachusetts closed public swimming beaches 915 times in 2011 because of high bacteria from stormwater runoffs and sewage overflows, an act echoed by other coastal states.
The problem persists because the goals of the Clean Water Act turned out to be far more costly than expected when passed in 1972.
At the time, two-thirds of the country’s lakes and rivers were unfit for swimming, according to 2002 congressional testimony. Today, that has been halved. The EPA estimates the federal government spent $61 billion on sewage treatment systems from 1972 to 1995.
The benefits are visible. The Charles River “really ran in colors” in the mid-1960s because animal body parts were dumped in the water from slaughterhouses, said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. Now, after an expenditure of $79 million, the Charles is now called the country’s “cleanest urban river,” Zimmerman said.
Boston Harbor was a cesspool four decades ago. After an expenditure of $5.5 billion dollars, construction of a new treatment plant on Deer Island in 1995 and a massive underground tunnel in 2011, the Harbor is much cleaner. Nitrogen overloads have plunged by 50 percent, oxygen has increased, and the sea grasses that once coated the harbor floor are returning, according to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
But sewage pollution continues, in two ways.
What officials call “sanitary sewer overflows” are direct discharges from the sewer lines themselves, often caused when pipes are ruptured, clogged with grease or tree roots, or flooded in a rain. This can cause backups that send raw sewage spilling onto streets or spouting from manholes.
In 2004, the EPA estimated 3 billion to 10 billion gallons of untreated sewage is leaked accidentally each year in this manner.
“Most people don’t know much about what goes on underground,” said Denny Dart, chief of Water Enforcement for EPA’s Region 1, covering New England. “When we get big storms and flooding I see people letting their children play in the floodwater. In New England, there’s a very good chance that the floodwaters have sewage in them.”
But the biggest source of pollution — an estimated 850 billion gallons each year — comes as a result of a design shortcut, according to a 2004 report to Congress by the EPA. Many East Coast sewage systems were designed to funnel stormwater runoff into the same treatment plant that handles sewage. In routine weather, this generally works and has the advantage of cleansing both stormwater and sewage before it reaches waterways.
But when there are heavy rains or snowmelt, the systems are overwhelmed and operators divert the deluge directly into the waterways.
To fix the problem, municipalities can build separate systems for sewage and stormwater or build immense underground holding tanks to hold the excess until it can be treated.
But the size of the work yet to be done is daunting. The EPA still lists nearly 3,000 water bodies in New England as “impaired,” meaning they remain too polluted to meet minimum water quality standards.
In 2008 the EPA estimated that another $64 billion is needed to fix the combined sewer problems, $4.2 billion of that in New England.
“The most important thing for people to become more aware of is we are still using rivers and streams as sewage conveyances,” said Khalsa, of the Mystic River Watershed Association. “What’s needed now,” Khalsa said, “ is to look at the great work we’ve done, and redouble our efforts to complete the job.”
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (www.necir-bu.org) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and supported in part by media outlets that include The Eagle-Tribune. Emerson College journalism student Vjeran Pavic helped compile the mapping for this project.