As of July 6th, 2022, Massachusetts requires applicable utilities to send notifications of sewage pollution events. Massachusetts joins several other states with similar laws in place. But as some utility owners might point out, not all water systems have updated tools to enable real-time monitoring of combined sewer overflows (CSOs).
A look back at sewage pollution public notification history
The original Public Notification Rule (PN) complimented the Safe Drinking Water Act to inform consumers about drinking water issues. But in 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated the PN to include measures for making the emergency notification process more efficient:
Notification processes streamlined to reduce the strain on water systems
Easy-to-read revisions for the public to access and understand
Fast forward to February 27, 2013, an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, known as the Sewage Overflow Community Right-to-Know Act, was introduced, but not passed by the Committee on Environment and Public Works. However, some states have since passed their own notification acts.
States with sewage pollution public notification laws or guidance
Several states across the country have laws or guidance documents available regarding sewage pollution notification requirements, including:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- Great Lakes Basin
We explore the notification requirements for each of these states below.
Effective January 21, 2022, the 314 CMR 16.00 regulations passed by the state of Massachusetts now require more immediate sewage notifications. Alerts must be sent out no later than two hours following the discovery of a sewage pollution event.
The sewage pollution events requiring notification include (MassDEP):
- Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) that:
- Discharge through a wastewater outfall
- Impact surface water due to capacity constraints
- Impact surface water due to pump station failures
As noted on page 6 of the CMR document referenced above, existing notification programs require updates to help expedite responses to emergencies, including:
- Developing standard operating procedures with assigned responsibilities
- Increasing staffing when there are higher risks of a discharge occurring (e.g., significant wet weather events or storms with risk of power loss)
- Using contract services for operating/maintaining metering systems, scrutinizing meter data, and providing public notice
- Forgoing a confirmation effort if time or other resource needs preclude that task, and proceeding directly to notification
In 2013, the state of Connecticut introduced the Sewage Spill “Right-to-Know” Law, requiring the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to:
- Provide an online map showing the location of sewage spills, anticipated combined sewer overflows, and permitted sewage bypasses
- Send notifications of a sewage spill or permitted sewage bypass within two hours of a reported event
- Use a real-time notification system to send out event alerts
Florida’s “Clean Waterways Act of 2020” has increased penalties since its issuance a few years ago, with the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) providing more warning notices to the public. The FDOH must notify and provide proper signage on rising bacteria levels. Notices should also include a subscription list that anyone can sign up for.
The 2021 Maryland Environment Statutes require notification of sanitary sewer overflows. Notifications should be posted at the location of overflow or treatment plant bypass, on several websites (the Maryland Department of Health, and local health department), and social media.
Indiana’s community notification methods lay out several rules for notifying the public about CSOs. The Legal Information Institute lists that communities should provide public notice in a newspaper of general circulation in March of each year to allow the following to request receipt of CSO notification:
- Media sources, such as newspapers, television, or radio
- Affected public
- Other interested persons in the CSO community
New Jersey issued 25 CSO permits in 2015 to improve water quality for the surrounding communities. The CSO permits also include public notification requirements:
- Posting of CSO Identification Signs (containing symbols prohibiting swimming, fishing and kayaking) at every CSO outfall location
- Posting of leaflets/flyers/signs with general information at affected use areas (e.g. beaches, marinas, docks, fishing piers, boat ramps, parks and other public places) within 100 feet of the outfall
- Notification to all residents by US mail or e-mail in the permittee’s sewer service area regarding CSOs and the related threat to public health
- Creation and maintenance of a telephone hot line or website to provide immediate/up to date information regarding CSO discharges. The Department’s intent is for the permittees to provide up-to-date information to the public as to whether or not CSO discharges are occurring.
The State of New York has the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, which involves a free alert system used across several hundred agencies to notify the public about certain information.
The Right to Know Act is defined as follows:
The Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act (ECL § 17-0826-a) (SPRTK) requires publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) and operators of publicly owned sewer systems (POSSs) to report to various entities, including the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the local health department (or if there is none, the New York State Department of Health), officials of adjoining municipalities and the general public, in certain instances, of the release of untreated or partially treated sewage.
North Carolina has set a statute regarding public notifications for wastewater discharges. Depending on the discharge amounts, utility operators must follow certain publication requirements such as issuing a press release within 24 hours or publishing a notice within 10 days of the discharge.
Water utilities with CSO discharges must publicly notify the community by (Pennsylvania DEP):
- Posting (at outfalls, use areas, public places)
- TV/newspaper notification
- Direct mail notification
The notification requirements are part of Nine Minimum Controls which includes items such as ensuring proper operation and maintenance and implementing monitoring at all CSO outfalls.
South Carolina requires public notifications for overflows over 5,000 gallons. Notifications should include:
- Social media posts
- Phone alerts
- Press release (website and local press)
- Signs (posting in the area of release and downstream)
- Door to door notification and door hangers
Texas has set public notification requirements for wastewater facilities that have spills or accidental discharges and fall under certain criteria such as proximity to a drinking water source. Notifications should be sent within 24 hours through communication methods such as hard copy, email, or by phone.
Vermont legislature states that wastewater treatment operators must notify the public of an untreated discharge immediately through:
- A publicly accessible electronic network
- Mobile application
- Other electronic media or alerting method
Depending on access to communication, operators may delay notification by up to four hours.
Wisconsin utilities with CSOs are required to notify the public when sanitary or sewage overflows occur. Notifications can be sent in the most effective form possible or at the very least listed in a daily newspaper.
The Great Lakes Basin
The following states make up the Great Lakes CSO Basin: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The CSO notification plan covers any CSOs that occur from outfalls located along Detroit and Rouge Rivers. Great Lakes permittees have four hours to notify the public when a CSO discharge occurs.
Notification channels include:
- Social media alert
- Posting a notice on its public access website
- Oher means as appropriate (e.g., newspaper, radio, television)
Stay one step ahead of SSOs and CSOs
Utility owners can stay one step ahead by investing in solutions such as digital twins and predictive analytics to provide real-time, actionable insights. One such solution, waterCAST Sewer, provides insights on collection system performance by tapping into the systems you already have in place. Users can leverage digital twin technology to find discrepancies between predicted activity and observed behavior, helping to identify issues like overflows, blockages, and back-ups before they become problems.