HAVERHILL — Untreated sewage isn't the only thing pouring out of overflow pipes along the Merrimack River during times of uncontrolled discharges.

Personal plastic applicators, condoms and other "disgusting" junk pours out too, says Rocky Morrison, president of the nonprofit Clean River Project, which was founded in 2005 to help clean the Merrimack River.

And what doesn't collect along the riverbanks, ends up on the beaches of Salisbury and Newburyport, Morrison said.

"I've come to realize the biggest polluters of the river are the sewage systems along the river," he said.

Now Morrison is hoping for state money to purchase a specialized boat that will allow him to skim this plastic out of the river.

Morrison said that former state Sen. Barbara L'Italien had asked for $250,000 in a bond bill the governor signed to purchase a Trash Cat skimmer boat.

"Using a conveyor belt system, it can remove this deplorable debris from the water while the operator sits in an enclosed cab," Morrison said. "The skimmer returns to shore and unloads into a dumpster, using the conveyor belt in reverse. 

"We're working with Sen. Barry Finegold's office in hopes of getting this money released," Morrison said.

Six sewage systems along the 117-mile Merrimack River reported hundreds of discharges amounting to more than 800 million gallons of sewage dumped into the river in 2018, according to data compiled by environmental activists and regulators. That's double the 400 million gallons of raw sewage that went into the river in 2017.

The sewage came from about 50 overflow pipes that are part of decades-old sewer and stormwater systems designed to overflow when they are inundated, usually because of heavy rain. But along with the biological waste comes plastic.

Morrison's crew of paid workers and volunteers scour the river each year between Groveland and Chelmsford to remove debris – much of it plastic – that collects along the banks, such as syringes, soda bottles, nip bottles, coffee cups, and even disposable lighters.

Floating booms set up in Haverhill, Chelmsford and Lawrence capture some of it, and it's often mixed in with "smelly," liquid human waste, he said.

"The thinking of treatment plant officials is that all of the waste being discharged gets dispersed, but our booms are capturing something different," he said.

Morrison said no one is talking about the enormous amounts of plastic debris being discharged and that he's brought the issue to the attention of city and town officials up and down the river.

"They say it's not their problem because of the age of the sewage systems that were put in place years ago," he said. 

Morrison said he could install more booms, but that it's costly and only three communities, Haverhill, Lawrence and Chelmsford provide money to maintain booms in their waterways.

Removing debris captured by the booms is a sickening job, Morrison noted, which is why he's looking to purchase a specialized piece of equipment.

"We've been using a customized pontoon boat with a hydraulic lift, but the boat's pilot and lift operator have to endure the stench," he said.

Finegold, D-Andover, told The Eagle-Tribune that he and other legislators will be urging the governor to release money for the skimmer boat.

"We're hopeful the governor will authorize this as we have discussions with his office," Finegold said. "We'll try to convince him that this is worthy of supporting. We're also pushing for legislation that will be helpful to the river. It's a  priority for me and the rest of the delegation to preserve that river."

Christina Eckert, interim director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council, said plastic debris does make its way into the river, one way or another. 

"It's a problem and we know that Rocky works hard at removing this stuff," she said. "I'm surprised that some of the communities along the river don't support him. If all of them did, then he would have all the booms he needs to stop this flow of junk.

"What he's asking is not a huge chunk of a community's operating budget, but I think it would make a huge difference," she added. "Plastic debris that flows into the river is not good for the fish or for the wildlife, and it's ending up on the beaches and the oceans. We don't want things like syringes and applicators showing up on beaches."

An estimated 600,000 people get their drinking water from the Merrimack, including 80,000 in Lawrence.

"Millions of gallons of raw sewage that people paid to be cleaned, is all ending up in the river," Morrison said. "I put these facilities, the state and the EPA at fault. They should all be funding these cleanups."

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