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Boston Harbor Goes `Clean'

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

By Elizabeth RossStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 1992


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

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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.

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.