A cleaner Boston Harbor: something state cannot afford to postpone

After decades of looking the other way while Boston Harbor became anything but a delight to either eyes or nose, Massachusetts lawmakers now may have little choice but to face up to the pollution problem.

With State Superior Court Judge Paul Garrity looking on and the possibility that he might place in receivership the sewer division of the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), the push is on to ensure a substantial harbor cleanup.

A proposal by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to shift responsibility for both delivering water and getting rid of sewage in eastern Massachusetts to a new, more powerful agency languished for weeks in the state Senate before the lawmakers came up with a compromise of sorts. Although unwilling to go along with the proposed Metropolitan Water Resources Authority, the Senate approved creation of a single-focus Massachusetts Water Resources Authority - somewhat of a misnomer, since it would be restricted to sewage disposal.

But even this watered-down legislation faces an uncertain future in the state House of Representatives. The governor is lobbying intensely to get the House to approve his original proposal. Mr. Dukakis clearly has no intention of backing down and accepting the Senate-approved measure, which would leave delivery of water to 47 cities and towns with the MDC. Yet, unless he can get a substantial number of lawmakers, especially some from central and western Massachusetts, to go along with the bill he filed last April, Dukakis may have to accept a single-thrust sewer agency or watch a potential means of cleaning up the harbor go down the political drain.

As long as there appears to be something approaching a good-faith effort in progress toward dealing with the sewage problem, Judge Garrity may hold off stepping in and taking matters out of the hands of state officials. Clearly, the judge would not hesitate to move - as he did five years ago with the Boston Housing Authority - to place the MDC sewage division in receivership.

The current harbor-pollution litigation, initiated by the city of Quincy, is headed for a Nov. 14 court hearing at which state officials can be expected to seek more time to show what is being done to get at the problem's cause.

Because of fund-raising restrictions on the MDC, stemming from Proposition 21 /2, there is no way that agency could embark on a massive program to repair or replace much of the sewer system in Greater Boston. Similarly hobbled by law is the multipurpose agency's capacity to upgrade properly its delivery of drinking water to millions of homes and businesses in eastern Massachusetts.

A new and substantially less restricted state authority, combining responsibilities for both the water and sewer systems, appears to make good sense.

While nobody has the foggiest idea how much money might be needed to rebuild either the MDC water or sewer systems, with their crumbling pipes, the $600 million being discussed would make a good start.

The Senate-approved measure includes a bonding authorization ceiling of $300 million on the proposed sewer agency, to be repaid through a user assessment on the 43 cities and towns served by the sewer system. Individual municipalities then could decide whether to pass the charge on to property owners and renters, or absorb the added expenses themselves..

In contrast, the Dukakis proposal would require the agency to negotiate its own bonding, based on its projected revenue from water and sewer charges. The state's credit would be committed only for the first two years of the new operation. The authority would bill member communities in the water or sewer district for whatever is needed to finance the improvement bonds and meet ongoing operating expenses, with each city or town then passing the charge on to property owners or tenants. This would protect against the possibility of major improvements in water or sewer lines pushing up property taxes or forcing cuts in other municipal services.

Thus the proposal would get around the restraints of Proposition 21/2. Regardless of how it is viewed, this approach seems only fair, since those whom sewers serve would pay for them.

Under both the Senate-approved measure and the one favored by the governor, the proposed new agency would be run by a seven-member board including the state secretary of environmental affairs, gubernatorial designees, at least one appointee of the mayor of Boston, and the representative of an advisory board made up of officials from the communities served. The water resources authority would not be dependent on annual appropriations through the state budget, as is the MDC.

For reasons certainly more political than practical, some lawmakers, especially those from non-MDC areas, would just as soon continue the present setup. That could prove shortsighted should any further delay result in receivership for the MDC sewer division. In that case there would be a strong possibility that the state would have to come up with substantial funds to bring the system up to minimum performance.

The heavy flow of raw or undertreated sewage into the harbor, particularly when heavy rain occurs, cannot be allowed to continue, whatever it costs to prevent it.

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