Of potholes, potbellies, and pollution

First, the potholes. After a tough winter, Boston's streets are full of them. A local paper has front-paged a daily series called "Today's Pothole," with photographs of foot-deep rimwreckers that make your teeth rattle and your trunk pop open. As a recent returnee, I had forgotten about them until, within two weeks, I had to buy two new tires. Was I, I wondered, bearing out of my own pocket the cost of poor tax-supported maintenance? Are our streets really falling apart?

Nobody knows how many potholes there are in the 780 miles of streets under the city's Department of Public Works.But the DPW's acting commissioner, Robert Mehegan, comes unstuck over the notion that things are, as one might say, going to pot. "There are fewer potholes this year than in any year that I can remember," he told me. A check with newspaper editors around New England backs him up: Perhaps because this winter had fewer thaws with its freezes, the pothole count seems to be down all over.

Nationwide, however, our highways are in rough shape. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officers, some 40 percent of the country's 3.9 million-mile road system is in substandard condition. Contacted in his Washington office, an association spokesman pointed the finger at this decade's universal culprit: the oil-producing nations. From oil comes asphalt, he says -- and since the oil embargo of 1973-74, the paving industry has had to dig deep to find good-quality asphalt with, as he says, the right "stick-to-it-ness."

And a "Pothole Primer" published by the US Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory puts the figure for repairs to the nation's roads between now and the year 2000 at $900 billion.

Local taxi drivers see the problem another way. They grumble about shovel-leaners on road crews -- or the absence of the crews altogether. But Mr. Mehegan counters that the city spends $300,000 a year on patching material, and gets blamed for problems on Storrow Drive (a Metropolitan District Commission road) and the notorious Southeast Expressway (a state highway), as well as for holes punched and ill-repaired by utility crews. He also notes that from mid-December to mid-March the hot-patch plants shut down. Cold patches, the only alternative, stick about as well as hard butter on a chilled bran muffin, and sometimes come out the next day.

As warm weather brings hot patches, a word of advice to the patchers is in order. Please, as our public transportation system also crumbles away (more on that in future columns), cast a kind eye on car poolers. Try patching outbound roads in the morning and inbound ones in the afternoon.

If winter has also cratered your heating budget, you may be looking thoughtfully at a good old potbellied stove. First, however, try conservation -- plugging the cracks through which your heat escapes. To do so, you need good advice, and one of the bargains in this area is a group called Mass-Save. Like others around the nation, it is a nonprofit organization formed under federal and state mandate. A joint operation by 51 of the state's 54 utilities, it performs energy audits for homeowners.

I spent a morning with Mass-Save auditor Jim Gardner poking through a lovely old three-story house in Somerville. "It's a barn," quipped owner Gina McLaughlin, laying out a year's worth of utility bills. For the next three hours Mr. Gardner climbed from cellar to rafters. As he went, he talked about flow-restricting shower heads, door-sweeps, plug insulators, and condensation in the walls. "I'm a real advocate of caulking compound," he said, pointing to light peeking through the basement foundation.

Finally, he hooked his portable terminal into the telephone and (but for a poor phone connection that morning) would have fed all the data into a central computer and produced, on the spot, a list of fuel-saving measures and their potential savings.

Homeowners pay the auditor $10. The audit, Mass-Save figures, costs about $ 127. The difference is paid by the gas and electric utilities, who charge each customer an average of 27 cents a month over the five-year life of the program.

But the potential savings are significant. The average homeowner who lays out $40 for low-cost materials (like caulking) and spends four hours puttering around the house can save some $200 a year on fuel bills. Such measures would save Massachusetts some $250 million a year in oil bills.

The $10 million-a-year program is not without its problems, however. The charge on utility bills has caused some outcry -- as has double-billing, with both gas and electricity utilities sometimes tapping the same customers.

Then, too the suppliers of most of the state's domestic heat -- the fiercely independent mom-and-pop oil dealers --have gotten off without having to assess and pass on any charges. There is also a potential tiff between them and the auditors, who occasionally find an oil burner performing poorly after the customer has been assured by his local serviceman that it is in tiptop shape.

And there is the usual resistance to new ideas. Since the program began in January, Mass-Save has logged some 16,000 requests. Many, however, have come from customers like the McLaughlins, who already know the value of conservation and have done a lot of insulating. But Mass-Save faces a requirement to audit 7 percent of the state's four-unit-or-less homes this year. There are those who fear the auditors are hooked in to the tax-assessing network (they are not). There are also those who, already well on the road to conservation, learn little that is helpful from the audit. And there are those who haven't yet heard the message.

Two suggestions: Mass-Save might well turn annoyance with the monthly charge into an incentive, by offering to reduce or remove it for those who have already had an audit.

And homeowners might well call Mass-Save (or, in other states, the local utility company) and find out where all their hot air is going.

Finally, pollution. The New England Aquarium has a map of Boston Harbor mounted above a button labeled "Untreated Sewage Discharge." Push it, and 44 tiny green lights pinpoint 44 pretty unpleasant places.

Raw sewage may not be the worst offender, either. According to aquarium director John Prescott, "a volume of oil equal to the contents of the Argo Merchant [that 7 million-gallon oil tanker wrecked off Nantucket in 1978] goes into the harbor each year." It runs off streets and parking lots or gets rinsed down public sewers by mechanics wondering what to do with used crankcase oil.

Combine that with the cadmium, chromium, and other industrial byproducts settling into the sediments, and you get conditions which even the area's 10 -foot tides -- flushing 76 billion gallons of water out of the 22-square-mile harbor twice a day -- can't quite overcome.

But things seem to be improving, as government regulations and public awareness take hold along the coast and upriver. "The harbor has cleaned up in the last eight years," Dr. Prescott says.

How does he know? A little worm told him.

This particular worm is the teredo, a mollusk with a taste for pilings, piers , and all things wooden. Along with a crustacean named limnoria, it's "the most important organism in the ocean for recycling wood," says Ruth Turner of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

For years the harbor's wharf-owners haven't had to worry about these termites of the sea. The water has simply been too foul for them to live. But the worm may be turning. The Boston Tea Party Ship has put a "worm shoe," or replaceable false keel, on its wooden hull, tricking the shipworms into thinking they are eating the real thing.And Massport, rebuilding piers for its Castle Island container terminal, found much more damage than a report several years ago indicated.

Does this recent damage point toward cleaner water? "I think there's a very definite trend," Alex Surko, a Massport marine engineer, says. Last winter's hard freeze may postpone the crunch. But Boston just may go the way of New York. There, the water is improving and the pil ings are simply delicious.

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