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Dukakis, Bush, EPA to blame for Boston Harbor. Cleanup of the nation's dirtiest harbor was task no politician wanted

By Owen ThomasStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 1988



Boston

Boston has the filthiest harbor in the nation. Is Gov. Michael Dukakis to blame? Vice-President George Bush suggested as much when he boated through Boston early this month, a daring daylight raid on his opponent's territory and issues. ``The reason that Boston Harbor is not cleaner today is that the Dukakis administration twice sought to avoid making it cleaner,'' Mr. Bush said. A 1984 federal study found the harbor ranked first or second nationwide in most pollutants. Environmentalists and those involved in the cleanup, however, spread the blame much more widely. Even Bush has Boston sludge on his shoes, some say.

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``Nobody's hands are clean, including the EPA's,'' says Michael Deland, head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Boston office.

``I don't have enough fingers to point to all the people to blame for Boston Harbor,'' says Paul A. Garrity, the former ``sludge judge'' who in November 1984 slapped a moratorium on Boston-area sewer hookups in a successful bid to prompt action on a harbor cleanup.

James Maddy, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, points to Bush's role as head of President Reagan's Task Force on Regulatory Reform. The panel quashed regulations to make industries pretreat waste. In Boston, that would have meant years' less accumulation of heavy metals and other toxins in the harbor.

Make no mistake, Mr. Maddy adds: Governor Dukakis ``had to be hit over the head with a two-by-four'' to move on Boston Harbor, a body of water that had been collecting the city's waste for centuries.

The contentious cleanup history began 16 years ago, when Congress made secondary (more complete) sewage treatment the law of the land. In 1977, the Clean Water Act was changed to exempt cities that could show that the water receiving their treated sewage was not too badly affected. Many cities applied, including Boston, which proposed a sewage outfall pipe in deeper water.

Dukakis has offered two explanations for seeking the original waiver: scientific uncertainty and scarce funds. Diluting the waste in deeper water makes the effluent harmless, some argued. And while the federal government was ready to pay for three-quarters of the project, the state was in such financial straits it couldn't afford its share.

Federal officials and environmental groups dismiss the latter argument, but agree there is still discussion about the real need for secondary treatment. (In several sewage-disposal crises over the past century, Boston had always ``solved'' the problem by dumping the waste further offshore.)

Another reason is offered by federal and state officials: Harbor cleanup was a ``career killer.'' No one cared, no one thought it could be done, and no one wanted a sewage treatment plant next door.

It wasn't until Boston rediscovered its waterfront in the late '70s and early '80s that there was an ``explosion'' of public interest, says Steve Ells, director of government relations and environmental review at EPA's Region I office. ``Boston had forgotten its harbor.'' The idea that a cleanup was (a) possible and (b) worth doing wasn't widely accepted until the early and mid-'80s, he says.

The EPA was supposed to respond to Boston's 1979 waiver request in 12 months; four years passed. A spokesman for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) says the state made ``repeated'' inquiries on the waiver application.

EPA's Deland checked with the head of the waiver office in Washington and found ``no letter, and nary a phone call'' from the state. (Edward King was governor from 1978-82.)

Why the delay? This was the scandal-wracked EPA of Anne M. Burford and Rita Lavelle, Mr. Deland and others point out. The agency had its hands full with other matters. Soon after William Ruckelshaus took over the agency in 1983, Boston's answer came back: Permission denied.

Quixotically, says Deland, Dukakis resubmitted Boston's application for a waiver, an option designed for West Coast cities nearer to water thousands of feet deep. The Boston outfall pipe would have been in water 80-100 feet deep - only five times the diameter of the proposed pipe.

Paul Levy, head of the MWRA, says the supplemental application had the EPA's tacit approval. A state legislator says Boston, in the midst of lawsuits over the harbor cleanup, was following the advice of legal counsel. (Two high-visibility lawsuits were filed in state and federal court to force a harbor cleanup in 1982 and '83.) The refiled waiver application was denied in 1985.

From then on, the harbor cleanup timetable would be set by state and federal courts. Depending on who is asked, the Dukakis administration either was remarkably cooperative or had to be threatened with legal action every step of the way. In hindsight, says Deland, the routine option of bringing a lawsuit should have been exercised much sooner.

Today, nearly everyone is all smiles. ``I'm very proud to be the governor who's cleaning it up,'' Dukakis said of the harbor. EPA officials also accent the positive; environmentalists refer to Boston's ``model'' cleanup plan.

Almost everyone is smiling, that is, except rate payers. The federal funds allotted to Massachusetts for water pollution are running out - they were spent elsewhere in the state.

So the estimated $6.1 billion cost of New England's largest public works project, a secondary treatment plant and sludge disposal plan, will be borne largely by the 2.5 million residents of 42 communities plus Boston. Homeowners have been warned to expect water/sewer bills to more than triple - to more than $1,133 by the year 2000. Unless, Dukakis has hinted, they have a friend in the White House before then.