Baker aide Zooms in on sewage overflow problems

Forget the carefully curated Zoom office background or the blank white wall. Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides testified before the Legislature on Thursday sitting at an outdoor table next to a sewage outfall pipe on the Merrimack River. 

Theoharides was in Lawrence, and she used the setting of the combined sewer outfall system to call attention to a vital environmental problem affecting the Merrimack, but one that is largely unknown elsewhere in the state.

The way a combined sewer overflow system works is the system collects rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in a single pipe, then brings it to a sewage treatment plant. But when there’s heavy rainfall or snowmelt, the volume of water can exceed the capacity of the system. Untreated water then discharges directly into nearby rivers or streams.

In her presentation to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means – part of a series of hearings on Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan for using federal American Rescue Plan Act funding – Theoharides said there are 229 combined sewer overflow systems in Massachusetts that have funneled 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage into Massachusetts waters since May 2021. In the Merrimack River alone during that time, before the recent overflows stemming from Tropical Storm Ida, there were 35 combined sewer overflow events resulting in over 200 million gallons of untreated sewage flowing into the river. Ida spilled another 130 million gallons into the Merrimack over two days.

According to the Merrimack River Watershed Council, there are on average over 500 million gallons of sewage dumped into the Merrimack River each year in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

With climate change causing more extreme weather, the overflows are likely to get worse. The State House News Service recently reported that from January through August of 2021, combined sewer overflows in the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority service zone (which does not include the Merrimack River) discharged more than twice as much sewage and runoff into public waterways than was expelled throughout all of 2020, driven by heavy rains and storms.

The issue has long been a serious problem in the Merrimack Valley, with sewage discharges causing health dangers to those who use the water for recreational purposes or drinking water. There are ways to abate combined sewer overflow discharges, like building separate pipes for sewage and stormwater. But updating the systems takes money.

US Reps. Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton, whose districts include Merrimack Valley communities, have tried to get federal money to improve the systems and prevent overflows.

Theoharides said she hopes lawmakers will use ARPA money – potentially combined with the federal money that area municipalities get for water projects – to improve water and sewer infrastructure. Baker has proposed spending $400 million on water and sewer projects.

This has been a long-term problem that we have worked hard to address – but CSO abatement projects require significant investment,” Theoharides said in her testimony. “The funding provided by the American Rescue Plan provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address this longstanding, urgent issue for this critical natural resource in the Merrimack Valley.”




Race for second: Two new polls indicate the race for mayor in Boston remains incredibly tight — for the second spot in Tuesday’s preliminary election. City Councilor Michelle Wu retains her comfortable first-place position, while Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Andrea Campbell and Acting Mayor Kim Janey are locked in a struggle for second place. Read more.

Big spenders: The candidates for mayor in Boston at every turn are calling for substantial investments in housing, schools, transportation, and climate resiliency, but at a forum they indicated they were not calling for new taxes and fees to pay for these initiatives. Read more.

DOC hires ombudsman: After a lot of stalling, the Department of Correction finally complied with a legislative directive and hired an ombudsman to provide some oversight of the agency. But the decision to hire UMass Medical School hasn’t put a damper on concerns that the DOC is trying to shield itself from scrutiny, as lawmakers and advocates raise concerns about UMass’s independence. Read more.

Idle no more: A school bus company paid $165,000 to settle charges that its diesel buses illegally idled outside New Bedford schools. The settlement spurred Attorney General Maura Healey to alert superintendents across the state to the idling issue and to set up a tip line so the public can notify her about problems at schools. 

Massachusetts laws prohibit school bus drivers from idling buses for longer than five minutes and within 100 feet of school grounds. According to Healey’s office, “inhaling diesel exhaust can cause cancer, aggravated asthma, lung damage, and other serious health problems and is especially harmful to children, whose lungs are not yet fully developed.” Read more.





Lawmakers hear pitches from the Baker administration to spend portions of the federal ARPA money on climate change, transportation, and economic development. (Gloucester Daily Times)

New court documents show the extent of public corruption by former state rep. David Nangle, who admitted to using campaign funds for personal use and defrauding banks and the IRS. (MassLive)

Two Cape Cod lawmakers are making another run at changing a law that gives coastal property owners full domain over land extending to the low-tide mark, a statute that gives Massachusetts one of the most restrictive waterfront access laws in the country. (Boston Globe)


A Berkshire Eagle editorial criticizes two City Council members who suddenly resigned, citing a toxic political climate, without explaining what exactly they were talking about. 


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meets privately with striking nurses at St. Vincent Hospital. (Telegram & Gazette)

A new study shows that starting in 2019 Black people began dying of opioid overdoses at higher rates than whites or Hispanics. (Boston Globe


President Biden issues an emergency federal rule requiring every employer with more than 100 workers to require every worker to get vaccinated against COVID-29 or submit to weekly testing. The decision would affect 80 million US workers. (NPR)

Around 1,000 Afghan refugees are expected to arrive in Massachusetts, creating a need for funding and housing. (MassLive)


In their last encounter before Tuesday’s preliminary election, the five major candidates for mayor in Boston spar over COVID response, the state of the public schools, and more. (Boston Globe

GBH looks at the race for mayor in Everett, where incumbent Carlo DeMaria is facing a serious challenge from City Councilors Gerly Adrien and Fred Capone. 

The seven candidates for mayor in Holyoke appear at a forum. There was little interchange, but the Daily Hampshire Gazette uses the event to do mini-profiles of the candidates. 


Rep. Adam Schiff of California and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts criticize Amazon for allowing anti-vaccine books to rise high on its recommended lists. (NPR)

Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren said he will sell all his individual stocks and stop doing any trading in the face of conflict-of-interest questions raised about his transactions. (Boston Globe


The Amherst-Pelham Regional School District is considering instituting a vaccine mandate for all age-eligible students. (MassLive)

The Northampton School Committee pulls back its proposed anti-bias and symbols of hate policy for further review after the American Civil Liberties Union said it could chill free speech. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

More than 40 percent of Boston school buses did not arrive on time for the first day of classes. It’s the best opening-day performance in six years, but not one that impressed families left in the lurch. (Boston Globe) Municipal employees handed out pencils marked “Mayor Kim Janey” to Boston students arriving at schools, a practice employed by former mayors but one that drew criticism five days before the preliminary city election. (Boston Herald

The Hull school superintendent was fired due to text messages he sent to a former student, but a year later, those text messages remain secret. (Patriot Ledger)


Virginia Buckingham, who led Massport on September 11, 2001, reflects back on her experience during and after the terrorist attacks. (Salem News)


Harvard University says it will divest all its holdings in fossil fuel companies. (Boston Globe)

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends superfund status for the lower part of the Neponset River. (State House News Service)


A small number of employees return to the Roderick Ireland Courthouse to find soggy carpets and new mold. A judge is considering as part of a class action lawsuit whether to keep the courthouse closed. (MassLive) Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi says he will stop sending inmates to the courthouse for court appearances. (MassLive)


Private Anthony Munoz, 21, a Lawrence High School graduate, dies on his first day of training as a Marine. (Eagle-Tribune