Merrimack River Task Force looks at sewer overflow

AMANDA GETCHELL / Staff PhotoKirk Westphal, an engineer and water resource planner, speaks about pollution in the Merrimack River during a meeting at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill on Friday.

HAVERHILL — Members of environmental groups, city leaders and concerned residents gathered as a task force for a kickoff meeting Friday to discuss how to monitor combined sewer overflows from treatment plants polluting the Merrimack River and what short- and long-term solutions might address them.

The group of more than 50 people met at Northern Essex Community College as the newly established Merrimack River Task Force to discuss the health of the Merrimack, with a significant emphasis on combined sewer overflows – often called CSOs – what they are and how they are managed.

Local officials, including Amesbury Mayor Ken Gray, Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, Rep. James Kelcourse, R-Amesbury, and Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, expressed the importance of cleaning up the Merrimack River and the money needed to do that.

Combined sewer systems are designed to overflow and discharge excess untreated sewage and stormwater directly to nearby bodies of water, such as the Merrimack. These overflows contain stormwater runoff, untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and other debris. They have become a major problem in cities across the country, said Mark Young, executive director of water utility in Lowell.

Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, co-sponsored the bill, S.457, with Kelcourse and two others to establish the Merrimack River District Commission, in effect creating this local task force. DiZoglio has already secured $50,000 in state money to fund the commission.

Holaday, who attended the meeting and has worked closely with DiZoglio on the issue, said it’s become clear all communities on the Merrimack River have to address the issues of combined sewer overflows. By working with each other to share data and information, she said, this will be possible.

“Fixing these CSOs and their infrastructure is not something that can happen overnight,” Holaday said. “It’s not helpful for us to be pointing fingers. It’s time for us to come together as a united front now that we have funding and we have the start of our commission to take action.”

In order to make an impact, Holaday and others said they will need to work with representatives in New Hampshire and federal leaders to get major funding to address the problem, since the pollution comes from plants in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Several communities, including Haverhill, Lowell and Lawrence, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to address combined sewer overflows.

Additionally, the group examined a history of the river, the science behind pollutants, treatment and technology and how to move forward. Sewage plant officials from Lowell, Haverhill and the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District offered insight on how they operate, how often they see CSOs and what they are doing to deal with them. Officials also mentioned federal funding is needed to make large scale changes.

In his presentation of pollutants in the river, Kirk Westphal, who has more than 20 years of experience as an engineer and water resource planner, noted while aquatic life “looks good” for now in the river, there are continuous problems that need to be solved when it comes to stormwater.

“CSO abatement alone is not the answer,” Westphal said. “We need to find a better way to address stormwater’s contribution to the pollution.”

City officials, including Holaday, said a clear notification system would be beneficial to warning boaters, swimmers, fishermen and others when there are overflows. DiZoglio said there are plans to develop a website, smartphone application and flagging system to alert residents immediately about an overflow from a sewage treatment plant.

The task force will continue to meet on a regular basis. To contact DiZoglio’s office with questions or concerns about the Merrimack River, email or call 617-722-1604.

Staff writer Amanda Getchell covers Newburyport and Seabrook. Follow her on Twitter @ajgetch.

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