N.H. sewage water disks are washing up in Mass.

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / March 22, 2011

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The dirty water disk invasion is spreading.

Tiny pieces of white plastic mesh, released from a Hooksett, N.H., water treatment plant more than two weeks ago, have found their way to Revere and Nahant, and state officials are now warning people as far off as Provincetown to be on the lookout.

Last week, New Hampshire officials estimated that 200,000 disks, which are used to clean potentially harmful bacteria from waste water, were released from the plant due to a malfunction after heavy rainstorms March 6. But crews in Massachusetts, alone, have already picked up more than 1 million of the disks, Richard K. Sullivan Jr., Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said yesterday.

New estimates indicate that 4 to 8 million disks actually escaped from the plant. “It’s a lot, and they just keep moving down south,’’ Sullivan said.

Many were discovered March 13 in Newburyport, about 40 miles down the Merrimack River They were also spotted along the water in Groveland and Salisbury. Sullivan said many of the disks were swept out the mouth of the river into the Atlantic Ocean by the tides and washed ashore farther south, toward Boston.

The trip has been more than 100 miles and could be farther if the disks start washing up on the Cape.

Officials in Provincetown were surprised to learn the disks could reach their beaches.

“It’s unfortunate that man-made items like that have to find their way into a natural environment,’’ said Brian Carlson, health and environmental affairs manager in Provincetown. “It sounds like there isn’t a public health issue in terms of contamination, but, of course, litter is litter, and it would be an unnatural material that we’d have to deal with.’’

Carlson said the public beaches could be cleaned quickly, but he worried about private beaches and less populated areas.

All recent tests on the disks have come up negative for potentially harmful bacteria, but initial tests in Seabrook, N.H., on March 11 showed the disks contained E. coli and enterococci bacteria, which can cause serious illnesses.

Sullivan warned that, despite the new tests, people should not handle the disks with their bare hands and should wash their hands with soap and water if they do.

The 2-inch plastic disks themselves are not harmful. They are stored in the waste water treatment plant’s tanks, and within the disks are “good’’ bacteria that breaks down the E. coli and other harmful bacteria found in the waste water. The disk system is new in New Hampshire, and Hooksett is the first community in the Granite State to use them.

According to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, the Hooksett plant held more than 39 million disks, and as many as 20 percent were released.

Sullivan said that Hooksett has assumed financial responsibility for the disks, and communities can bill the town directly for cleanup efforts.

At the state level, more than 60 Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation employees have been working on cleanup.

“We anticipate there will be additional need over the next few months to have our staff out on our beaches,’’ Sullivan said. “It’s going to be an expensive project.’’

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at