EPA targets sewage spills with $67M grant program

Bill Kirk, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
·4 min read

Apr. 14—Federal lawmakers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire cheered Wednesday's announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency that an additional $67 million in federal grant funding is being made available to address the chronic problem of raw sewage being dumped into rivers and coastal areas across the country during periods of heavy rain.

The Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grant program will help local communities like those along the Merrimack River address stormwater and wastewater overflows that pollute local waterways.

"Every community along the Merrimack River like Lowell, Dracut, Methuen, Lawrence, and Haverhill knows just how devastating combined sewer overflows can be," said Congresswoman Lori Trahan, D-Westford. "For too long, Washington has shifted the financial and environmental burdens of addressing this issue to local governments, who are already being asked to do more with less. This down payment is a signal that help is on the way."

Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs, release billions of gallons of untreated wastewater into the Merrimack River — and rivers and coastal zones in 860 municipalities — every year.

According to the EPA's website, a combined sewer system, or CSS, collects rainwater runoff, domestic sewage and industrial wastewater into one pipe.

"Under normal conditions, it transports all of the wastewater it collects to a sewage treatment plant for treatment, then discharges to a water body," according to the EPA. "The volume of wastewater can sometimes exceed the capacity of the CSS or treatment plant (e.g., during heavy rainfall events or snowmelt). When this occurs, untreated stormwater and wastewater discharges directly to nearby streams, rivers, and other water bodies."

As a result, "untreated or partially treated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris as well as stormwater" is released, according to the EPA.

The Merrimack River Watershed Council said in a recent report on the river's water quality that in 2018, 800 million gallons of untreated wastewater were released into the Merrimack. In 2019, 562 million gallons were released in 2020, 387 million gallons were released, according to John Macone, education director for the Watershed Council.

Most of that pollution comes from the 50 sewer outfalls located along the river in five communities — Manchester and Nashua, New Hampshire, and Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill, Massachusetts.

It remains unclear exactly how much each community will get from the grant program, according to Trahan's media director, Francis Grubar. However, it will augment funding that has steadily grown in recent years to address the CSO problem.

Since its reauthorization in 2018, the grant program has seen consistently higher annual appropriations, from $28 million in fiscal year 2020 to $40 million in fiscal year 2021.

"We are working to get more money allotted," Grubar said, noting that a bill by Trahan calls for increasing the annual grant program to $400 million. That bill remains in the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, local, state and federal lawmakers are keeping an eye on President Joe Biden's infrastructure bill that could add billions of dollars to the effort of cleaning up the nation's waterways.

"Sewage overflows pose a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of our Granite State communities," said New Hampshire Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster, D-Hopkinton. "The federal government has a responsibility to support efforts to ensure local waterways are clean and free of waste.

"This funding from the EPA is a step in the right direction toward making our sewage and stormwater systems safer and more resilient. I look forward to working with my colleagues and the Biden-Harris administration to bolster federal investment in our waterway infrastructure to ensure our communities get the support they need."

New Hampshire Congressman Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, said "maintaining the health and well-being of the Merrimack is essential to our regional economy and our way of life. These federal dollars will help our communities upgrade failing and antiquated infrastructure that poses a threat to our environment."

Congressman Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Salem, Massachusetts, said CSOs "come up almost every single time I do a town hall, Facebook live or community meeting."

He added that in this country, "clean drinking water and clean rivers ought to be a right. We can stop CSO by investing in a new generation of infrastructure and technology. That means 21st-century wastewater systems and alert systems until we fix the problem. This grant will help get us there."

States are eligible to apply for the funding, which once awarded, are provided as sub-awards to local governments for projects that address combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows and stormwater management.

"While utilities do an incredible job of managing wastewater and safely returning it to the environment, increased water from heavy rains and storms can challenge and even circumvent this great work," said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox. "Under America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, this new grant program empowers EPA's state, local, and utility partners to improve stormwater management and benefit communities."