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Earth Day Wastewater MWRA Environment : Avoid Unintended Environmental Impacts from Wastewater Discharge

Earth Day 2023: Avoid Unintended Environmental Impacts from Wastewater Discharge


Earth Day is around the corner—Saturday, April 22nd will be the 24th observation of the holiday intended to celebrate our beautiful planet, highlight how best to protect it, and help us grow together in healthy, resilient communities. The last few decades have seen an incredible shift towards general awareness of how our personal and professional lives have environmental implications. Safety Partners and our clients in the life sciences and technology industries are no exception; laboratory research, manufacturing, and facilities operations can all have direct and indirect environmental impacts. One of the most direct routes from our laboratories to the environment, and the theme of today’s blog, is via wastewater.

Wastewater management may not be the most glamorous topic, but it is one especially well suited for Earth Day. Water and sewer services in the Greater Boston Area (GBA) are managed by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). The MWRA service area includes homes and businesses in sixty-one communities in the GBA. It provides drinking water to fifty-three of these areas and on the other end of the pipe, collects the residential, commercial, and industrial wastewater for treatment and disposal.

When considering wastewater, “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” is a tempting slogan, but it turns out our wastewater is not so out-of-sight after all. Once collected by the MWRA, our wastewater is sent to the Deer Island Treatment plant, treated, and discharged into the Massachusetts Bay.  That means any contaminants that pass through the system untreated will end up close to home!

As recently as 35 years ago, Boston Harbor was considered “the dirtiest harbor in America”. The MWRA and Deer Island Treatment Plant have done an incredible job returning our local waters to a healthy state, but that now leaves us with the responsibility for maintaining that quality. Today, the MWRA’s treatment train includes screening, settling, biological treatment, and disinfection before discharge to the Bay. This treatment is highly effective for most human and commercial waste, but laboratory and other industrial wastes can be more complicated.

Because of this, MWRA regulations prohibit discharge of certain substances including mercury, hazardous wastes, and any water or wastewater with a pH lower than 5.5 or higher than 12.0. Each of these is prohibited for a variety reasons, but generally, they run the risk of disrupting plant operations (the biological treatment is performed by a delicate balance of microbes), creating hazardous sludges that are unsafe for reuse, or passing directly through the plant and reaching the environment untreated.

Earth Day is a great time to take a second look at your lab operations and validate that you are not having any unintended environmental impacts. Some suggestions include:

  • Discuss appropriate waste disposal with your teammates. Remind them that while discharging via the lab sink may be a very tempting waste disposal method, nothing should be poured down the drain unless they are sure it is compliant.
  • Post a list of the MWRA prohibited discharges visibly near your sinks.
  • Do not forget about your floor drains! Make sure you have an inventory of all floor drains on site and have berms, covers, or spill control supplies to prevent unintended discharge to the drains, and review whether these drain to pH neutralization systems, a holding tank, or directly to the sewer.
  • Store all chemicals near sinks and floor drains in secondary containment.


For other considerations for good environmental stewardship, take a look at our Earth Day blog post from 2022.  For additional information about wastewater discharges or MWRA permitting, please email us at [email protected].

This blog was written by Elizabeth Gilbert, Senior Consulting Safety Officer at Safety Partners.

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