Manchester asked to step-up reporting of raw sewage discharges into Merrimack River

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Merrimack River. Photo, Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Has the city of Manchester been pumping raw sewage into the Merrimack River because of heavy rains this spring? That question won’t be officially answered until next year, when the city is required to file a public report.

Yet just 35 miles south, the wastewater treatment plant serving the city of Lowell has voluntarily notified the public of 20 sewage discharges into the river during the last nine months, according to local officials.

John Macone, outreach coordinator for the Merrimack River Watershed Council, is asking that Manchester do the same  — immediately after an incident occurs.

“What we’re asking is for Manchester to meet the standard that the other plants along the Merrimack River are already meeting, and that is to simply alert the public whenever they release sewage into the Merrimack River,” he said. “The other plants are trying to release information within a few hours. Manchester only releases its information once per year.”

Six urban sewage treatment systems in the Merrimack River watershed frequently discharge large quantities of raw sewage during rainstorms:  Manchester, NashuaLowell, Mass., the Greater Lawrence, Mass., Sanitary District, and Haverhill, Mass. (all on the Merrimack River), and Fitchburg, Mass. (on the Nashua River, a Merrimack tributary).  These sewage treatment plants are under government order to eliminate most of their combined sewer overflows (CSOs) but without additional federal and state funding, it will take as long as 25 years to get there.

Macone said Manchester represents 45 percent of the estimated 800 million gallons of sewage that overflowed into the Merrimack River in 2018, which is about double what would be released in a typical year.

He said outdated sewer lines collect both rainwater and sewage, and when heavy rains overwhelm the system, as it did in 2018, raw sewage overflows into the river. All other major wastewater treatment plants along the Merrimack inform the public when this occurs.


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Why was 2018 such a bad year for CSOs?

According to MWRC, the drastic increase in CSOs in 2018 was due to substantial rainstorms that included heavy downpours.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, computer models show that the Northeast will experience more of these types of storms due to climate change.  In 2018 we had a few of these big storms — most notably on September 18 (3.1 inches of rain), August 11 (2.2 inches), and April 17 (2.4 inches).

The city of Manchester has undertaken a 20-year, $165 million roads project as part of its Combined Sewer Overflow program . They city agreed to a settlement years ago with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) for a phased approach to the problem of excessive CSOs into the Merrimack River. In March of 1999, the EPA issued an Administrative Order requiring the City to spend approximately $52 million over a 10-year period to begin elimination of CSOs and provide more detailed planning for the Phase II Program. As part of the agreement, the City is required to commit an additional $5.6 million for Supplemental Environmental Projects throughout the City. You can read more on the city’s plan here.

The solution, says Macone, would be to rebuild the system, but that’s expensive and requires an infusion of federal funds that isn’t expected anytime soon. The river serves as drinking water for an estimated 600,000 people and is used by thousands for recreation. So, Macone said the council sees quicker notification as a public health issue.

“They are in technical compliance with the law,” he said. “But what’s interesting is, you have three other plants that also don’t have to release information to the public immediately, but they are, because they feel it’s their public responsibility to let people know what they’re releasing into the river.”

A table detailing the city’s CSO discharges over the past five years was provided by Fred McNeil, the city chief engineer for the Environmental Protection Division. According to McNeil, last year there were an estimated 177 CSO events totaling 364 million gallons of sewage discharged into the Merrimack.  These discharge frequencies and volumes are based on a computer model that is used at year’s end.  There will not be any 2019 data until early 2020, McNeil said.

McNeil confirmed the city releases discharge information annually and said there is currently no public notification system about CSO events as they happen.

“However, we are currently working with EPA and NHDES on public notification protocols.  We expect these protocols will be finalized by the end of 2019,” McNeil said, adding that the City reports all CSO discharge frequencies and volumes to EPA and NHDES annually, and referenced the table, below, prepared using the data.


This story was updated on July 1 to include comment from city official Fred McNeil, received after deadline. It was originally published June 26 by Public News Service and was republished  herewith permission, with some additional background information added by ManchesterInkLink.