Sewage systems can be submerged in water after a storm. Instead of pouring excess sewage into basements, the system is designed to evacuate wastewater into nearby rivers – the same bodies of water that are used for consumption and recreation. Contaminated water has been linked to an increase in various illnesses. Due to the red line and systematic racism, these contaminated waters are more likely to pass through low-income populations and communities of color.
As a public health problem that is costly to solve and disproportionately affects marginalized groups, lawmakers and engineers do not prioritize solutions. Yet despite these obstacles, there are currently people educating communities about water quality and cleaning up polluted water.
Nathan Sanders, a data scientist and volunteer policy committee member of the Mystic River Water Association (MyRWA), has done extensive research on the Massachusetts sewage system, using an environmental justice lens.
“The way our sewage systems are designed in Massachusetts and many other older communities is to intentionally dump sewage into the river when it rains.” Sanders said. “It’s a little appalling and essentially illegal under federal law, but there are very understandable reasons why the system is designed this way.”
To begin with, the system was created for a much smaller population and not for the scale it is today.
âThree hundred years ago, I think it made perfect sense. We had these bodies of water that weren’t necessarily used by a lot of peopleâ¦ and the volume of wastewater was relatively low at that time â, Sanders said. âAdding a trickle of sewage to a big flowing river maybe didn’t seem like a big deal. But now, asâ¦ the volume of sewage has increased and more and more people actively use the river, it has created a real public health problem.
Rachel Wagner, senior environmental studies student, interned at MyRWA, where she focused on water testing and environmental justice work. She explained that nitrogen and phosphorus levels increase in water after a storm due to runoff and sewage discharge.
âThere are a lot of problems with this phosphorus and nitrogen pollution because it comes from excess fertilizer on people’s lawns. [and from] people who do not collect their dog’s droppings containing nitrogen and phosphorus â, said Wagner. “This runoff that goes into the storm sewers, that goes right 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 also end up in the wastewater dumped into the river, causing bacteria to grow.
“Both phosphorus and nitrogen are limiting nutrients, which means that they are fundamentally the predictors of growth and are necessary for the growth of algae.” said Wagner. “You will see [algae] bloomsâ¦ so you see a lot of dead fish in the rivers after huge storms.
When thunderstorm, there is an increase of various diseases due to sewage overflow and water polluting runoff.
Massachusetts State Senator Pat Jehlen, who has been fighting sewer overflows for more than a decade, explains that after a storm, the number of hospitalizations increases. Even COVID-19 can be spread through wastewater from the Mystic River after a storm.
In the same way, Sanders noted that there is an increase in gastrointestinal illnesses reported after torrential rains.
âThe primary concern for the Mystic River is recreational contact,â Sanders said. âPeople boating or swimming in the river, who can accidentally touch the river while walking along it, or if they fall from the boat. It also led to illnesses.
The areas where these wastewater discharges are found are generally in marginalized communities, making wastewater pollution a problem of environmental justice, according to Wagner.
“You see everything [the pollution] downstream, and downstream communities tend to be high risk ones, such as communities of color [or] low-income populations who are exposed to increased risk for no reason â, said Wagner.
As with many problems in the United States, sewage overflow is linked to systemic racism.
“There is a systemic racism that has meant that communities that are on less desirable land are the ones that are affordable, âSanders said. “I think the underlying link here is the story of industrialization and urban development in our state which has caused some communities to thrive with these combined sewer systems.”
High 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, ruled that Massachusetts should clean up pollution from sewage.
âThe judge determined that Massachusetts needs to clean them up, we need to fix the sewage discharge,â Sanders said. âThe court also agreed that it was too expensiveâ¦ and that it just wasn’t going to happen. So the court has authorized what is called a long-term control planning process.
The long-term control planning process allowed the state agency to complete an analysis of how it could most effectively spend its money on pollution control. This gave priority to the richest areas for cleaning. For example, the city of Cambridge spent part of a billion dollars to clean up the Charles River, according to Sanders.
The declaration of water quality has been the most controversial obstacle in the treatment of sewage overflow, due to the high cost of cleaning. Wastewater treatment plant operators do not want to be held accountable for water quality because they do not want to be held accountable, according to Jehlen.
Along with others, Jehlen proposed a bill for public notification of wastewater discharges.
“For years, we couldn’t pass this bill because some operators said, âWe don’t want to report when we discharge partially treated wastewaterâ.âJehlen said.
In January, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill; however, regulators have played with terminology to circumvent the declaration of water quality.
“We said it [the bill] includes partially processed [sewage], so the new one [regulators] have a new term that exempts mixed 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 the quality of their water.
In areas of the Mystic River, individuals will fish for food without knowing the water is contaminated. Wagner worked with a team from MyRWA to put together fishing advisories explaining the dangers of fishing in polluted waters.
“Many environmental justice communities get their food, especially fish, from the Mystic, which is really problematic, âWagner said. “[Weâre] install signs in different languages, especially Spanish, in areas like East Boston, Chelsea [and] Revere.”
There are also ways to modify infrastructure to prevent water pollution during a storm.
“You have infiltration trenches, which are a very useful way to prevent the phosphorus and nitrogen pollution that you see during these intense storms, âWagner said. “Rain gardens [are] also a great way to hang on to water.
Jehlen explained how legislation can also be used to encourage more resilient infrastructure.
“It has to do with your building codes and your zoning so that you don’t allow the construction of [structures, like] giant parking lots, which cause runoff, âJehlen said. “They are not the cause, but they have no filtration.”
While some groups are working to tackle sewage pollution, the issue is not yet a universal priority.
“[What] my colleagues and I had done for the discharge of wastewater, I believe this is the first and still the only [environmental justice] analysis of this type of pollution which has been carried out in the country, at least to my knowledge â, Sanders said.
As climate change only advances, there will be more storms resulting in more contamination of the water. Wagner encourages students to use their privilege to get involved in cleaning the water.
âIt’s so easy to get sucked into a ‘Well we’ve got clean water, we’ve got accessible food that’s not polluted,â Wagner said. âAs privileged people at Tuftsâ¦ we have the opportunity to make our voice heard, to be part of helping organizations like MyRWA and to try to do work. “