At Massachusetts’ beaches, unsafe water could make you sick

Media Contacts
Ben Hellerstein

Former State Director, Environment Massachusetts

Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center

Boston – With summer in full swing, environmental advocates released a new report showing potentially unsafe levels of pollution at more than 200 beach locations in Massachusetts last year.

“Swimming at the beach is a favorite summertime experience for so many families, but clearly we have more work to do to make sure the water at all of our beaches is safe,” said Ben Hellerstein, State Director for the Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center. “We must invest in water infrastructure that prevents pollution to ensure that Massachusetts’ beaches are safe for swimming.”

In 2018, levels of fecal bacteria above the “Beach Action Value” threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were detected at least once at 223 locations, according to Safe for Swimming?: Water Quality at Our Beaches. At Malibu Beach, where advocates gathered today to release the report, potentially unsafe pollution was present in the water on 11 out of 92 days on which testing was conducted last year.

Fecal bacteria can make people ill, particularly with gastrointestinal ailments. Common sources of this pollution include stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. An estimated 57 million people nationwide get sick from contact with polluted waters annually, according to the EPA.

While Boston Harbor and other waterways have become much cleaner in recent decades, pollution is still a problem. In some communities, sewage and stormwater flow into the same pipes. These combined sewer systems can become overwhelmed during heavy storms, discharging untreated sewage into nearby waterways.

Combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, carry pathogens that can be harmful to humans, particularly boaters and swimmers. CSOs also contribute to toxic algae blooms in rivers and coastal waters.

Currently, there is no statewide requirement for the public to be notified after a CSO. Senator Patricia Jehlen, Representative Linda Dean Campbell, and Representative Denise Provost have filed legislation requiring sewage system operators to notify the public promptly when a sewage discharge occurs. A key committee in the Legislature recently approved this bill.

“In 14 other states, the public is provided a notification whenever there is a sewage spill in a public water body. But there is currently no statewide general public notification requirement for Massachusetts. Climate change is only exacerbating our pollution issues as stormwater runoff triggers more sewage overflows,” said Gabby Queenan, Policy Director at the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance. “This legislation is the first important step in addressing and eventually eliminating CSOs. Ultimately we need to make major investments in our grey and green water infrastructure.”

An earlier version of the report, released in other states, included errors that affected the frequency of unsafe water quality at some sites, mostly around the Great Lakes. Frontier Group, the other organization that authored the report, released a detailed statement accompanying the revised report on its website.

The report includes recommendations to prevent bacterial pollution and keep our beaches safe for swimming. Rain barrels, rooftop gardens, permeable pavement, and urban green space can all absorb stormwater runoff and prevent sewage overflows. Congress is now considering legislation to increase funding for such “green infrastructure” projects through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.