After the storm: Environmental injustices in Massachusetts’ sewage system

The Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant from Boston Harbor is pictured. via Wikimedia Commons

After a storm, sewage systems can get overwhelmed with water. Instead of pouring excess sewage into basements, the system is designed to discharge sewage into nearby rivers — the same bodies of water that are used for drinking and recreational purposes. The contaminated water has been linked to an increase of various diseases. Due to redlining and systematic racism, these contaminated waters are more likely to run through low-income populations and communities of color.

As a public health issue that is expensive to fix and one that disproportionately affects marginalized groups, solutions are not prioritized by legislators and engineers. Yet, despite these barriers, there are currently people educating communities about water quality and cleaning up polluted waters.

Nathan Sanders, a data scientist and a volunteer member of the Mystic River Water Association (MyRWA) policy committee, has done extensive research on the Massachusetts sewage system, using an environmental justice lens. 

“The way our sewer systems are designed in Massachusetts and in many other older communities is to intentionally dump sewage into the river when it rains,” Sanders said. “That is a little bit appalling and essentially illegal under federal law, but there are very understandable reasons why the system is designed that way.”

To begin, the system was created for a much smaller population and not for the scale it is today.  

“Three hundred years ago, I think that made perfect sense. We had these bodies of water that weren’t necessarily used by a lot of people … and the volume of sewage was relatively low at that time,” Sanders said. “Adding a trickle of sewage to a big flowing river maybe didn’t seem like a big problem. But now, as … the volume of the sewage discharge has grown, and we have more people using the river actively, it’s created a real public health concern.”

Rachel Wagner, a senior studying environmental studies, interned at the MyRWA, where she focused on water testing and environmental justice work. She explained that levels of nitrogen and phosphorus increase in the water after a storm due to runoff and sewage discharge. 

“There are a lot of problems with this pollution of phosphorus and nitrogen, because they come from excess fertilizers on people’s lawns [and from] people who don’t pick up their dogs’ waste that has nitrogen and phosphorus,” Wagner said. “That runoff that goes into storm drains, which goes directly into our water sources. [It] is basically an over-stimulant in the environment, and it causes intense reactions of growth and then death.”  

These chemicals are also in the sewage that is discharged in the river, causing bacteria to grow. 

“Phosphorus and nitrogen are both limiting nutrients, which means that they basically are the predictors of growth and they are required for the growth of algae,” Wagner said. “You’ll see [algae] blooms … so you see a lot of dead fish in the rivers after huge storm events.”

When it storms, there is an increase of various diseases due to sewage overflow and runoff polluting the water.

Massachusetts State Sen. Pat Jehlen, who has been combating sewage overflow for over a decade, explained that after a storm, there is an increased number of hospitalizations. Even COVID-19 may spread through sewage in the Mystic River after a storm.

Similarly, Sanders noted there is an increase in gastrointestinal illnesses being reported after rainstorms. 

“The main concern for the Mystic River is recreational contact,” Sanders said. “People who are boating or swimming in the river, who may incidentally touch the river while they’re walking along it, or if they fall out of the boat. That has also led to illnesses.” 

The areas where these sewage discharges are located are commonly found in marginalized communities, making wastewater pollution an environmental justice issue, according to Wagner.

You see all of [the pollution] downstream, and the communities that are downstream tend to be those at high risk, like communities of color [or] low-income populations that are put at a heightened risk for no reason,” Wagner said.

As with many problems in the United States, sewage overflow is connected to systemic racism. 

There’s systemic racism that has caused those communities that are on less desirable lands to be the ones that are affordable,” Sanders said. “I think the underlying connection here is the history of industrialization and urban development in our state which has caused certain communities to develop with these combined sewer systems.”

Higher-income communities have had the privilege of being able to deal with water pollution. In 1985, the Boston Harbor Case, under the interpretation of the Clean Air Act, decided that Massachusetts had to clean up the wastewater pollution.

“The judge determined that Massachusetts has to clean them up, we have to fix the sewage discharges,” Sanders said. “The court also recognized that it’s too expensive … and that just wasn’t going to happen. So the court allowed for what is called a long-term control planning process.”

The long-term control planning process allowed for the state agency to complete an analysis on how it could most efficiently spend its money to deal with the pollution. This resulted in wealthier areas being prioritized for cleanup. For example, the City of Cambridge spent a portion of the $1 billion on cleaning the Charles River, according to Sanders.  

The reporting of water quality has been the most controversial barrier in dealing with sewage overflow, due to the expensive cleanup cost. The operators of sewage treatment plans do not want to report water quality because they don’t want to be held responsible, according to Jehlen.

Alongside others, Jehlen proposed a bill for public notification of sewage discharge.

For years, we couldn’t pass this bill because certain operators said, ‘We don’t want to report when we release partially treated sewage,’” Jehlen said.

In January, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill; however, regulators have played with terminology to get around reporting water quality.

We said [the bill] includes partially treated [sewage], so the new [regulators] have a new term which exempts blended sewage, which is the same as partially treated [sewage],” Jehlen said. 

The fight for public notifications is ongoing, but there are other ways to educate communities about their water quality. 

In areas of the Mystic River, individuals will fish for food without knowing the water is contaminated. Wagner worked with a team at MyRWA to put up fish advisories that explain the dangers of fishing in polluted water.

A lot of environmental justice communities get their food, especially fish, from the Mystic, which is really problematic,” Wagner said. “[We’re] putting up signs in different languages, especially in Spanish, in areas like East Boston, Chelsea [and] Revere.”

There are also ways to change infrastructure to prevent water pollution during a storm.

You got infiltration trenches, which are a super helpful way to prevent that phosphorus and nitrogen pollution that you’re seeing from those intense storms,” Wagner said. “Rain gardens [are] also a really good way to hold on to the water.” 

Jehlen explained how legislation can also be used to encourage more resilient infrastructures. 

“It has to do with your building codes and your zoning so that you don’t allow the building of impervious [structures, like] giant parking lots, which cause runoff,” Jehlen said. “They don’t cause it, but they don’t have any filtration.”

While select groups are putting in the work to combat wastewater pollution, the issue is not yet universally prioritized. 

“[What] my colleagues and I had done for sewage discharges, I believe that is the first and still only [environmental justice] analysis of this type of pollution that’s been done in the country, at least that I’m aware of,” Sanders said. 

As climate change only continues to progress, there will be more storms leading to more water contamination. Wagner encourages students to use their privilege to get involved with water cleanup.

“It’s so easy to get sucked into a ‘Well, we have clean water, we have accessible food that is not polluted,’” Wagner said. “As such privileged people at Tufts … we have an opportunity to make our voices heard, to be part of organizations that are helping like MyRWA and try to do some work.”


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