Work crews were spread out along the Merrimack River and ocean coastlines including Ipswich's Crane Beach, yesterday, removing thousands of potentially harmful plastic white disks that escaped from a New Hampshire town's wastewater treatment plant last week. Some are contaminated with harmful E. coli.
Ipswich Town Manager Bob Markel alerted officials yesterday morning that there may be a problem with some of the disks reaching the shores of his town. He noted, however, "we have no evidence of contamination of Ipswich beaches. As a precaution, the (police) Chief (Paul Nikas) has closed Ipswich beaches, and they will remain closed until DEP notifies the town that the threat has abated."
"I'm really happy they've shown due diligence," said Ipswich Selectman Ray Morley. But he added, "This is a liability issue." He wondered who would pay for any police overtime required in keeping people off the beaches or the cost of dealing with any hazardous material found there.
Finally, Morely expressed frustration over the likely difficulty in getting an entity in another state to own up to its responsibility. He expressed the hope that the New Hampshire town would have insurance to cover such an eventuality.
Officials from the New Hampshire Department of Public Services said the disks have tested positive for E. coli and enterococcae, potentially harmful bacteria that could cause serious health problems to the elderly, young children and those already susceptible to illness, according to Department of Environmental Services spokesman Jim Martin.
Martin said those who come in contact with the disks should refrain from touching their mouths and should wash their hands with antibacterial soap and water.
Martin said the disks, about the size of a half-dollar, washed out of a Hooksett, N.H., sewage facility last Monday morning and traveled 40 miles down the Merrimack River before they began washing up in great numbers along the shorelines starting Thursday in Seabrook.
The disks are used to soak up and consume bacteria from wastewater. The treatment facility, located north of Manchester, N.H, experienced a malfunction during a recent heavy rain event, causing the disks to be released accidentally.
According to state Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, Massachusetts officials were told the wastewater treatment facility could hold up to 9 to 10 million of the plastic disks.
The accident comes in the midst of renovations to the Hooksett wastewater treatment plant. Six months ago, a contractor was awarded the job to double the capacity of the plant from 1.1 million gallons a day to 2.2 million gallons per day.
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection officials are conducting their own tests on the disks and are likely to release the results sometime today, according to DEP commissioner Ken Kimmell.
As a precaution, officials in Newburyport, Newbury and Salisbury closed beaches and waterfront parks on Saturday. The beaches remained closed today, and there has not been a definitive time announced as to when they might reopen.
According to a DEP official, the heaviest concentration of the disks appears to have landed along Newburyport's waterfront. But disks were found on Amesbury's Deer Island and the town's boat landing. Disks were also found in Methuen, Salisbury and along Plum Island beaches. Work crews were spotted yesterday outside the North End Boat Club and along Cashman Park. On the landing dock outside the North End Boat Club, several trash bags filled with disks and other debris were leaning against a red pickup truck belonging to Clean Harbors of Weymouth, the company contracted by the state to spearhead cleanup efforts.
Kimmell said he has already been in contact with Hooksett town officials, alerting them that the DEP would be holding them responsible for all cleanup costs.
Over the weekend, Newbury police set up a command post inside the Plum Island Center parking lot and an officer patrolled Plum Island Beach in an all-terrain vehicle to keep people and their pets off the beach. In Salisbury, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation closed Salisbury Beach State Reservation. Local police placed two electronic message boards on Route 1 and North End Boulevard alerting people to the beach closures, Chief Richard Merrill said.
Newburyport City Marshal Thomas Howard, who is also the city's emergency management director, said dispatchers sent out a Reverse 911 call to those living in affected areas regarding the closings. He also said dispatchers called police departments up and down the Merrimack River to get a sense of how big the problem was. Much to his surprise, some of the affected communities, including Manchester, N.H., were unaware of the accident, Howard said.
Yesterday, Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday and state Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, were among those visiting Plum Island Beach to assess the situation. Several DEP officials were also at the scene collecting samples and monitoring cleanup operations.
Workers are expected to continue removing as many of the disks as they could, but DEP officials acknowledged removing all of them may not be possible. Depending on the test results, officials may stop trying to pick them all up and ask affected communities to finish cleanup efforts.
State officials expressed outrage that officials in New Hampshire didn't alert communities downriver about the accident and that thousands of potentially harmful disks were heading their way.
"All New Hampshire had to do was pick up the phone," Baddour said. "You can't wait this long."
Baddour and other officials pointed out that had the incident taken place during the summer, the negative impact could have been far greater, considering the number of people walking along area beaches in March is far less than during the Fourth of July weekend.
Baddour said he has already been in contact with other senators who will be able to facilitate meetings with the appropriate New Hampshire officials to ensure those responsible for the accident are held accountable.
Kimmell said he was made aware of the accident Friday evening and will be inquiring about why he wasn't alerted earlier.
"We are concerned about that," Kimmell said.
According to Martin, New Hampshire DES did issue a statement about the accident after the disks appeared on Seabrook beaches and announced they'd likely be washing up downriver. As for the delay in alerting Massachusetts communities, Martin said he couldn't comment.
In contrast to officials in Massachusetts communities, New Hampshire officials did not close down affected beaches, instead warning residents to avoid touching the disks with bare hands.
Holaday said she was pleased with this state's DEP in terms of its handling of the situation but was less complimentary toward New Hampshire officials, echoing Baddour's concerns.
"At this juncture, New Hampshire needs to step up and clean this mess," Holaday said.
Holaday also added that part of her concern was based on New Hampshire's failure to notify Massachusetts officials.
"It's because we don't know what we're dealing with," Holaday said. "The best thing is for people to stay off the beaches."
Before beaches were closed, however, it's possible hundreds of people came in contact with the seemingly innocuous disks, not knowing what they might be.
Plum Island Beach resident Craig Filmore said he picked one up Saturday while taking one of his frequent walks on the beach.
"They're all over the place," Filmore said. "I couldn't miss them."
Filmore said that more than a day after touching one, he felt perfectly fine and was not concerned about becoming ill.
New Hampshire DES officials are requesting that anyone who finds the disks call them at 603-271-3710, so they can track where they are going.