New report: How clean are Massachusetts’ beaches?

Media Contacts
Ben Hellerstein

Former State Director, Environment Massachusetts

Environment Massachusetts

Boston – With summer in full swing, water pollution can close Massachusetts’ beaches or put swimmers’ health at risk.

In 2019, tests showed potentially unsafe levels of pollution on at least one day at 257 beaches in Massachusetts, according to Safe for Swimming?, a new report from Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center.

“Along many areas of our coast, the water is cleaner than it used to be — but pollution remains a serious problem,” said Ben Hellerstein, State Director for Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center. “All too often, our beaches aren’t safe for swimming. We can and must do a better job of keeping waste out of our water.”

To assess beach safety, the group examined whether fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most protective “Beach Action Value,” which is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers.

Tenean Beach in Dorchester had the highest number of potentially unsafe swimming days in 2019, with tests revealing elevated levels of fecal indicator bacteria on 44 out of 90 days tested. Beaches in Lynn, Quincy, and Eastham were also among the beach locations with the most days with potentially unsafe water in 2019.

“Save the Harbor/Save the Bay has always believed in the power of clean water to strengthen communities and improve our quality of life,” said Chris Mancini, Executive Director for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay. “As we face the challenges of the pandemic, and work to overcome the systemic racism that has too often prevented people of color from enjoying the benefits of the Boston Harbor cleanup, urban beaches that are safe for swimming and welcoming to all are more important than ever. We look forward to working with our allies in the Baker/Polito Administration, the Legislature, waterfront neighborhoods and beachfront communities, and groups like Environment Massachusetts to finish the job we began in 1986.”

Overflowing sewage systems and polluted runoff from roads and parking lots are two common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Scientists estimate that there are 57 million instances of people getting sick each year from contact with polluted waters in the U.S.

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. Sen. Patricia Jehlen, Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, and Rep. Denise Provost have filed legislation requiring sewage system operators to notify the public promptly when a sewage discharge occurs.

These bills are awaiting action before the House Ways and Means Committee, with the legislative session scheduled to end on July 31.

“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. “In 14 other states, the public is provided a notification whenever there is a sewage spill in a public water body.  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.”

The report comes as Congress is set to vote tomorrow on a major spending bill that includes an additional $11 billion for water infrastructure.

The report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution.  On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the “minibus #1” spending package, which includes an additional $11 billion in emergency water infrastructure funding.

“By investing in green infrastructure and eliminating sewage overflows, we can keep our beaches clean and safe for swimming,” said Hellerstein. “Wherever it’s safe to go to the beach, let’s make sure it’s safe to go swimming in the water too.”

Read Safe for Swimming?: Pollution at Our Beaches and How to Prevent It.