King’s Beach Part II: Progress slow and steady

Swampscott DPW Director Gino Cresta looks into a manhole that leads to the Stacey's Brook culvert. (Anthony Cammalleri)

Editor’s Note: This summer, King’s Beach received the worst water-safety rating in the region. In the second of an Item three-part series exploring the beach’s past, present, and future, today we explore ongoing efforts to reduce pollution.

In a strip of land behind the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1240 at 8 Pine St. in Swampscott, Department of Public Works Director Gino Cresta, alongside DPW workers Carl Eckman and Richie Sarro, used a flathead screwdriver to open a manhole cover Friday morning.

Holding a large bolt cutter, Sarro broke open the padlock in front of an adjacent shed, revealing the 1,000-gallon sodium hypochlorite tank used to chemically treat sewage-infected stormwater before it discharges into King’s Beach through the Stacey’s Brook outfall pipe.

Staring into the manhole at the main channel through which stormwater and water from Stacy’s Brook flow into King’s Beach, Cresta explained how in response to a 2007 consent decree from the Commonwealth’s Department of Environmental Protection, Swampscott built the chemical-treatment station.

Three times a week each summer, Cresta said, the water was tested for bacteria before and after it passed through the sodium hypochlorite — according to test results, it worked.

During the years the chemical-treatment station was open, lab reports show an approximately 75% reduction of the fecal coliform bacteria entering the channel through old leaking clay pipes before and after sodium hypochlorite treatment.

“The chlorine (sodium hypochlorite) just drops into the culvert. By the time it gets out there, it disinfects the drain water and discharges onto King’s Beach,” Cresta said. “We’d been doing this for years, and we never had a problem with contamination out there.”

On Sept. 26, 2011, for instance, pretreatment tests of the water showed 3,360 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of sample water. That same day, post-treatment tests from Stacey’s Brook resulted in zero bacteria per 100 milliliters.

The town’s sodium hypochlorite usage, however, came to a swift end in 2015, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued another consent decree that forced Swampscott to stop treating the water with sodium hydrochlorite because of the chemical’s perceived threat to aquatic life.

Unable to continue treating the stormwater runoff chemically, Swampscott began its source-elimination process — relining or replacing antiquated pipes that leak sewage into the culvert — in order to remain compliant with the EPA’s consent decree.

“Without a doubt, it’s getting better, but we are not getting the desired results that we thought we may have gotten at the end of phase one (source elimination),” Cresta said.

According to the DPW’s September consent decree report to the EPA, the $4.8 million source-elimination project has resulted in a gradual decrease in wastewater bacteria since it began in 2015.

Still, in 2022, a water test from a manhole at the intersection of Paradise Ellis Roads showed the largest recorded bacteria spike in the town since 2015, with roughly 1,900 enterococci (fecal) bacteria in a 100-milliliter sample.

“While general progress has been made in improving the water quality of drainage in the project areas, there are occasional spikes in the data suggesting intermittent sources of non-stormwater discharges remain in the project areas,” the DPW wrote. “It’s also important to point out that although the bacteria counts appear lower, the reduced concentrations may still exceed the regulatory requirement at King’s Beach.”

Despite millions of taxpayer dollars being dedicated to the project, Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald said Swampscott’s slow and costly source-elimination efforts should be considered a call for the town to seek state and federal funding.

“Much to my disappointment, in spite of our best efforts, we’re no closer to seeing that beach brought back to a productive reuse than we were six years ago, but data just frankly continues to confound,” Fitzgerald said. “We have a nebulous system of pipes and interconnections in point and non-point pollution sources that impair the water quality of King’s Beach and we need broader state and federal assistance. We intend to amplify that request and continue to press for that strategic partnership.”

In Lynn, source-elimination efforts toward compliance with the city’s 2017 EPA consent decree mainly revolve around the process of finding and disconnecting businesses’ and residents’ illegal sewage connections to the city’s stormwater drainage lines.

At an Aug. 19 Lynn Water and Sewer Commission meeting, Eric Kelley, the city’s consultant from the engineering firm Environmental Partners, suggested taking a piecemeal approach to source elimination by using CCTV cameras to more easily spot and fix illegal sewer hookups and leaks along the 22-mile-long drainage pipe.

In response to Kelley’s suggestion, the board considered applying to use roughly $500,000 of the $2.5 million American Rescue Plan Act funding allocated to the city in 2021 to fund a full-fledged camera inspection of Lynn’s drainage pipe.

“If we spend another half-a-million dollars TV-ing the lines, it would be a great thing, but I’d like to get some of the money that was appropriated to this work,” the board’s Executive Director Dan O’Neil said.

With limited success in their efforts to identify and fix the pollution sources, Lynn and Swampscott, through the King’s Beach Steering Committee, are in communication with Secretary Rebecca Tepper of the Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to secure state funding for phase two of the King’s Beach project. Phase two will likely consist of constructing either a 7,500-foot extension of the Stacey’s Brook drainage pipe to relocate wastewater out toward the harbor, or a UV light treatment center.

As pollution at King’s Beach draws increased attention from North Shore residents, activists such as Liz Smith of Save King’s Beach insist that stakeholders invest more in their efforts to attack pollution at its source.

“They spent $4.8 million on phase one, which doesn’t sound like very much money when they’ve been working on it since 2015,” Smith said. “What effect has that had on the problem? Clearly from the fact that King’s Beach has been closed for swimming 90% of the summer, more work needs to be done.”

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