Boston Harbor Goes `Clean'

A massive $6 billion construction project upgrades sewage treatment and helps transform highly polluted waters

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BOSTON'S Deer Island is no place to spend a vacation or visit for a picnic lunch.

This island-wide construction site is cluttered with dirt-filled dump trucks, rumbling cement mixers, and hovering cranes.

Deer Island may be no tropical paradise, but it is where a brand new sewage system is under construction as part of an ambitious $6-billion plan to clean up Boston Harbor. Years of dumping toxic waste and untreated waste water into the harbor has made it one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.

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The construction project includes two new sewage-treatment plants, two undersea tunnels totaling 14 miles, and a sludge-recycling facility. The new sewage system will serve Boston and 42 surrounding communities. To be completed in 1999, the project will ultimately provide Boston with the cleanest city harbor it has seen in decades.

Work on the project began in 1988 and already the water is getting cleaner.

City beaches are open to the public more frequently. More people are actually swimming and fishing in the water. And last spring, porpoises, seals, and other marine life were spotted in the harbor waters.

"People are enjoying the harbor today because of the changes that have already been made," says Douglas MacDonald, director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), the agency that oversees the project. "This isn't a project for your children. It's happening right now."

Fishermen near Boston's harbor islands - including Castle Island - have already noticed new signs of life, says Mr. MacDonald.

"The kind of anecdotal evidence we're getting is people saying, `I was at Castle Island and I was fishing and I looked down and I saw a starfish. I never knew starfish lived here. When did they come? But come to think about it, maybe it's because I could never see the bottom before.' "

Cleaning up the nation's dirtiest harbor was never expected to be an easy, or a pretty, undertaking. The process was started after a series of lawsuits were filed in 1982 against Massachusetts for the poor condition of the harbor. Those actions culminated in a 1985 United States court order requiring the state to meet a series of deadlines and to complete the entire project by 1999.

Some milestones of the project thus far include:

* Removal of scum or floating pollution. Plastics, grease, and tampon applicators were among pollutants removed from the treated sewage by February 1989.

* Cessation of sludge dumping. The valve that dumped 400,000 gallons of smelly, dirty liquid sludge, or treated human waste, into Boston Harbor daily for four decades was closed last December. Sludge is now transferred to a newly built recycling facility south of Boston, completed last December, which converts the material into dried fertilizer pellets.

* Improvement of combined sewage overflow system. In parts of Boston's aging sewage system, combined sewers carry both storm water and untreated sewage into the harbor during heavy rainstorms. New treatment facilities in four key areas now screen and chlorinate combined sewage waste and rainwater.

* A decrease in toxic-waste dumping. Toxic discharges have declined in the harbor from 6,000 pounds per day in the 1970s to a current level of 1,500 pounds per day.

Environmental groups applaud progress made so far. Sheila Lynch, president of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, says the many harbor island beaches are now much cleaner.

"The shoreline is visibly much, much better and walkable and enjoyable ... whereas before those areas were strewn with litter from sewage," Ms. Lynch says.

But much more needs to be done besides just improving water quality, says Lynch. One problem is "hot spots" of contaminated sediments on the harbor floor.

"People are reviewing what to do with the sediments in terms of dredging, but there is not a clear solution," she says.

But there's no lack of hard work in progress on Deer Island. Visiting the location is like seeing an entire community under construction. A view of the island from the Construction Support Building here shows a hodgepodge of dirt-moving, tunnel digging, and excavation operations. Roughly 1,800 workers are employed by 20 to 30 different contractors, says Tom Malcolm, MWRA spokesman.

"There's a lot of congestion here," he says. "It's construction companies working cheek by jowl."

The project promises economic benefits for New England, a region in a deep recession. The MWRA says the effort will bring in $3 billion to the local economy during the next decade, create a total of 41,000 jobs, and generate $150 million in tax revenue for Massachusetts.

The cost of the cleanup, however, is monumental. Federal funding for the entire project will pay for less than 4 percent of the cost. That means homeowners of the participating communities will foot most of the bill. Currently, area homeowners pay an average of $535 for their water and sewage costs. But that figure is expected to rise to $855 per household by 1998.

Other controversies over the cleanup are bubbling up as well. Activists on Cape Cod are upset about the project's 9 1/2-mile ocean tunnel, which will dump treated waste water out beyond the harbor into Massachusetts Bay. They fear that the effluent, or treated sewage, from the tunnel will contaminate marine life.

But MWRA officials say the effluent will be so highly treated by the new sewage system that it will have the consistency of clear, swimmable water.

"We're not just moving a problem from Boston Harbor to some place else, and the reason is the scale and the nature of what would be discharged," says MacDonald. When the new treatment system is complete, sewage will be treated much more thoroughly with the modern primary treatment plant than it is today. In addition, it will then go through a secondary treatment process, not part of the current system, says Macdonald.

"There is really is something to the notion that putting it in a very expansive [body of] water where it can naturally be assimilated without damage to the environment is a lot different from putting it in a small shallow [body of] water where it can't," he says.

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