Sewage overflow prompts health talks in Swampscott

Kings Beach is closed after storms over the weekend send 1.15 million gallons of sewage into the water. (Anthony Cammalleri)

SWAMPSCOTT — After weekend rainstorms flooded King’s Beach with more than a million gallons of raw and partially-treated sewage overflow last weekend, Public Health Director Jeff Vaughan discussed transparency and public-safety procedures with the Select Board Wednesday evening.

Vaughan kicked off the meeting with an overview of Saturday’s sewage-overflow incident in Lynn, explaining how combined sewer systems expel sewage runoff into the beach to prevent it from making its way back to people’s homes.

Most beaches, Vaughan said, will be clean within 48 hours of a combined sewage overflow. He added that although the current signage outside King’s Beach warns the public to keep off of the beach entirely, the real danger concerns something more specific.

“This is really about swimming, this is what it’s about. It’s not about the beach, it’s not about anything else,” Vaughan said. “We also have to remember that there’s always going to be some sort of runoff onto that beach and other beaches that have overflow systems.”

Select Board member Doug Thompson expressed skepticism with Vaughan’s claim and asked the health director if he was sure 48 hours was enough time for the beach’s sand and water to be safe for the public.

“I don’t want to be blocking the beach unnecessarily, but if it means another 24 hours and extra testing, that makes us feel a lot better… instead of us, a couple years from now, finding out that this really wasn’t a safe approach,” Thompson said.

In response, Vaughan said that the Board of Health is generally unconcerned with sand, given its natural ability to filter contaminants.

“Sand is one of the best filtration systems that we have on Earth. Then you have at least four salt-water exchanges going in and out of there,” Vaughan said. “We’re not testing the sand.”

He said the town has tested the beach for decades and typically finds that the water is safe for swimming within 48 hours of an incident.

In response to Vaughan, Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald said that Department of Public Works Director Gino Cresta raked the sand multiple times each day since the overflow. He said although the town diligently tests its waters, more can be done out of an abundance of caution to ensure the public’s safety.

“We’re getting into an age where we’re becoming much more knowledgeable about our solid waste or waste streams, and we really should be looking at a range of tests that can help us just ensure that that beach area is going to be safe,” Fitzgerald said.

Select Board member Katie Phelan asked Vaughan why King’s Beach had been closed on Sunday while surrounding beaches, such as Phillips Beach, stayed open. Vaughan responded that only King’s Beach was tested on Sunday.

“You’re saying you know it’s not safe and you didn’t do anything about it? That’s what my fear is,” Phelan said.

“We’re talking about combined sewage overflow. We know that that’s a problem and we posted signs at that beach because we know the water emptied out on King’s Beach. It didn’t go on any other beaches,” Vaughan responded.

Fitzgerald added that in addition to the Health Department’s weekly tests, the town should work on notifying the public as soon as possible after a rainstorm so residents can avoid the waters.

“We probably need to spend more time engaging the public and just helping everybody understand. The longer time you give that beach to recover after a rainfall of significant volume, the safer it’s going to be. We just don’t have the data to say the beach is unsafe, but folks are going to have to kind of make some judgment calls about where they feel comfortable with going to the beach on these days,” Fitzgerald said.

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