Harbor cleanup effort still could sink into political quicksand

The day may be coming when swimmers can jump into Boston Harbor without holding their noses and diggers can reap clams on harbor flats without defying health department edicts. But it won't be soon. In fact, the cleanup could take decades. Much will depend on how quickly and effectively the new Metropolitan Water Resources Authority (MWRA) comes to grips with its chief challenge: ending the flow of raw sewage into the harbor.

Such pursuits, even if carried out by a largely independent governmental agency, will take a lot of support and quite possibly many more dollars than Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and others who pushed the new setup have suggested. The governor signed the measure creating the authority Dec. 19.

Yet major improvements to the metropolitan sewer system - including replacement of perhaps hundreds of miles of century-old pipes, aging pumping stations, and one or both sewage treatment plants - are long overdue.

While the $300 million in bonding authorization for the various sewer-related projects certainly is more than a drop in the funding bucket, considerably more may be needed. This could mean going back to the legislature within the next few years to expand the agency's borrowing capacity, or taking a lot longer than the 15 years now anticipated to get the pollution abatement job done.

Obviously, it is essential to hold down not only construction costs but also operating expenses. The new agency cannot be allowed to become a haven for political patronage for those in positions of influence on Beacon Hill, within local governments, or anywhere else. Anything less than a merit system in hiring or choice of contractors would hardly be in the best interests of the commonwealth or a clean harbor, which has to be the prime objective of every decision by those entrusted to manage the new agency.

State lawmakers, although they finally faced up to the need to do something about the sewage disposal problem after years of turning their eyes and noses in other directions, have hardly distinguished themselves in this matter. Had the threat of court receivership of the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) sewer division not been echoing loudly in legislative ears, it is questionable whether the idea of a new, dual-responsibility water and sewer agency would have made it this year, if indeed ever.

It should be noted that such legislation was filed last April by Governor Dukakis and was moving with the speed of a boulder along a flat road when Superior Court Judge Paul G. Garrity, last month, began putting on the heat.

With great sensitivity for the political process and considerable judicial patience, he shied away from what had to be a great temptation to tell foot-dragging legislators how to deal with the pollution problem - whether through a new agency, as now provided, or some other approach.

Yet there was no doubt Judge Garrity meant business. Like it or not, he was ready to take matters into his own hands through a court-appointed manager setup as he did several years ago with the recently lifted receivership of the Boston Housing Authority.

As well-intentioned as the 11-member MWRA board may be, there is clearly a need for a continuing close watch of the agency's operations, both during the transition period and for a considerable period thereafter. The Garrity reappointment of a court master for the harbor cleanup thus makes particular sense. Without such ongoing surveillance, steps to replace or radically overhaul and upgrade the Deer Island and Nut Island sewage treatment stations might become jeopardized by fiscal or political expediency.

Also of considerable merit may be the decision of the regional director of the US Environmental Protection Agency to press for federal court intervention in the harbor cleanup effort to impose and enforce deadlines for various stages of what is expected to be a $2 billion project.

Bringing Greater Boston a first-rate sewage disposal system, stoping the flow of 16 billion gallons a year of raw sewage into the harbor, and improving delivery of water are plausible goals.

The ultimate cost will be borne substantially by those served, as well it should. To suggest that property owners and others now served by the MDC will pay less than they now do for their water is absurd. And thousands who have had to pay nothing for sewer service can count on either directly or indirectly anteing up for what long has been taken almost for granted.

The $600 million bonding authorization - half for sewer and half for water projects - should help spread out the financing of the new water resources authority's construction and improvement program.

Although initially, at least, the new agency should confine itself to the 51 cities and towns that have been served by the MDC's sewer or water divisions, expansion of its scope to embrace other communities within the metropolitan Boston region might well be considered. No municipality, however, should be compelled or even slightly pressured to join up. The question of embracing new cities and towns quite properly is something the legislature should have a strong say in, but such decisions should be based purely on local need.

The main concern for the MWCA has to be seeing to it that Boston Harbor or any other area into which of sewage is disposed is fully protected from new torrents of pollution from overtaxed sewer lines and treatment plants. Similarly , there is a responsibility to protect Quabbin Reservoir and other resources so an abundant supply of clean water will be available for tomorrow's needs as well as today's.

In this respect it is important that considerable time be devoted to planning , something the MDC has not done very well.

A major concern, especially to western Massachusetts legislators and their constituents, has been the possibility of diverting water from the Connecticut River into Quabbin. Under terms of the newly enacted measure setting setting up the MWRA, the agency's authority would stop short of such a move. It may be recalled that in the late 1930s four central Bay State towns - Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott - were wiped off the map to create the site for the reservoir which for the past several decades has been the prime water supply for Greater Boston.

A key provision of the new law is leaving within the MDC responsibility for preservation of the watersheds, including the area around Quabbin, from the potential of pollution.

Shifting both sewage disposal and water-supply functions from the MDC may be more than some lawmakers wanted, but it does appear to be the best approach and, over the long run, perhaps the least costly. The MWRA, as carefully crafted as it was, could well fall short of the mark unless Dukakis, Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, and others who will fill various seats on the authority's board use extra care in selecting men and women who could bring some measure of expertise as well as commitment to the agency.

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