March 15, 2021

Moulton Introduces STOP CSO Act

Bill would create national alert system for Combined Sewer Overflow events and help states identify sources of CSO

SALEM, Mass.— Today, Representative Seth Moulton (D-MA) announced he has introduced the Sewage Treatment Overflow Prevention through Community Sanitation Outreach (STOP CSO) Act. 


The STOP CSO Act would require local governments to alert residents within four hours if stormwater overwhelms sewage plants and carries sewage into rivers and watersheds. The bill also allows state and local governments to use grant funding to create the alert system.


“CSOs come up almost every single time I do a town hall, Facebook live or community meeting. In the United States of America, clean drinking water and clean rivers ought to be a right,” Moulton said. “We can stop CSO by investing in a new generation of infrastructure and technology. That means 21st century wastewater systems and, until we get there, push notifications when the river your drinking water comes from contains sewage.”


Combined sewer overflow occurs in cities and towns with archaic wastewater infrastructure systems. In those systems, everything that goes down the drain in houses and on streets flows into one network of pipes with industrial wastewater. The pipes carry the water to a wastewater treatment plant, where the water is cleaned and then drained into local waterways. During heavy rains, stormwater overwhelms the processing system, and a combination of untreated sewage and stormwater is released into local rivers.


According to estimates from the Merrimack River Watershed Council, in the past five years an average of 550 million gallons is released into the Merrimack River annually. Typically, there are between 40 and 60 releases per year.


Merrimack River Watershed Council data show the highest total in recent years occurred in 2018, when 850 million gallons were released. That year had unusually heavy rainfall, about 125 percent above average. The Council noted in its report that the federal Environmental Protection Agency predicts New England will experience more frequent heavy rainstorms due to climate change, which is expected to increase the number of CSO sewage discharge events.


When an overflow happens, federal law requires municipalities operating wastewater plants to inform the Environmental Protection Agency and state officials within four hours. There is currently no federal law requiring public notification. A new law in the state of Massachusetts which sets up a state-level notification system passed last year. But, the state law only applies to sewage released from wastewater plants in Massachusetts into the Merrimack River, which crosses state lines. Moulton’s bill would ensure the state’s residents are alerted when sewage is released by treatment plants in New Hampshire. 


According to WBUR, just a small number of states require their local governments to notify the public when a discharge happens. The lack of a uniformed notification policy is acutely problematic when bodies of water form the border between two states or flow between multiple states.


The STOP CSO Act would do the following things: 


  • Help states identify the sources of Combined Sewer Overflow 
    • The bill adds sewer overflow monitoring, reporting, and notifications to the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, an EPA program designed to identify sources of pollution for further regulation. 


  • Allow states to better measure the problem of CSOs. 
    • The bill lets states use existing Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Municipal grants for overflow monitoring, reporting, and notifications


  • Require states to build a system for monitoring sewer overflows to alert the owner/operator in a timely manner;


  • Require public alerts that are sent no more than 4 hours after the owner/operator becomes aware of the overflow; and


  • Require the notification of public health authorities if the sewer overflow may endanger human health.


Moulton wrote the bill in collaboration with leaders at the state and local level who are also pushing for action on combined sewer overflow issues.


Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday said: “The STOP CSO Act provides much needed coordination and transparency for communities along the Merrimack River in both the state of New Hampshire and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The increasing levels of sewage discharge impacts the environment, the economy, and the health and well-being of residents in the City of Newburyport and other river communities.  Advance notification following CSOs to river communities from NH to MA will provide communities the ability to measure and better understand how these events affect the ecology of the river in order to coordinate and develop measures to mitigate the effects of CSOs.  We are grateful to Congressman Moulton for taking on this issue and for helping get this important legislation passed through Congress.”


MA State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R–Gloucester) said: "Discharges of sewage into rivers are serious events, particularly when those rivers are sources of public drinking water like the Merrimack. Ultimately we must prevent them from happening through investments in infrastructure, and we will need the partnership of the federal government to afford them. But until we can make the structural changes to stop the overflows at their source, we need to use the power of timely information to equip local officials and the public to protect public health and prevent unsafe exposures to contaminants in the water. That is why this legislation is so important and deserves passage as quickly as possible. I am committed to supporting the bill, and deeply appreciate the efforts of Representatives Moulton and Trahan in filing it."


MA State Senator Diana DiZoglio (D-Methuen) said: “Our mighty Merrimack is an essential resource that provides not only drinking water but countless economic benefits to the communities who reside along it. That is why it is so imperative that we take action, at the federal, state and local levels, and do all we can to ensure the Merrimack River will be here for future generations to explore and enjoy. While we have been working at the state level to create a combined sewer overflow notification system in Massachusetts, CSOs are also a significant problem across the border in New Hampshire. With state laws varying, there must be a federal solution to ensure residents are alerted when contaminants are released into the river. I am grateful to Congressman Moulton and Congresswoman Trahan for their leadership on this issue and look forward to continuing to work alongside them in protecting our public waterways.”

MA State Representative James Kelcourse (R-Amesbury) said: “The STOP CSO Act is a vital piece of legislation for all the residents that reside within the Merrimack Valley. While I am so proud that Governor Baker took the first step to sign the CSO notification bill into law, the ultimate goal is to push for federal funding to replace our cities’ aging stormwater and sewer lines, so that raw sewage won’t be released into the river during heavy rainstorms or snow melt. I look forward to continuing to collaborate with our local, state and federal officials to work towards an attainable solution.”


Last week, Rep. Trahan introduced the Stop Sewage Overflow Act with Rep. Moulton as an original sponsor. In addition to working together on legislation, Moulton and Trahan have organized regionally with Members of Congress from New Hampshire to work together on CSO in the Merrimack River.