Legislature wrestles with court over Boston Harbor pollution

After months of delay, Massachusetts lawmakers are under the judicial gun to stem the rising tide of pollution in Boston Harbor. A Nov. 29 edict by state superior court Judge Paul Garrity halted indefinitely the connection of water and sewer lines at commercial and industrial building sites in much of eastern Massachusetts. The order could slow major construction in and around Boston. Much will depend on how long the order remains in effect and whether legislation to provide a new state agency, empowered to rebuild the metropolitan sewage sytem, becomes law.

Judge Garrity's action came in response to a 1982 suit brought by the city of Quincy involving the occasional flow of raw sewage into the harbor, thus polluting its beaches and shoreline. State attorney general Francis X. Bellotti is appealing the ruling, but it is generally considered doubtful such a move will succeed.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis wants the proposed Water Resources Commission (WRC) to have responsibility for water and sewer operations, including the authority to issue $600 million in bonds to pay for replacing existing facilities, some of which are more than a century old. The proposed WRC would repay the loans and fund its operations through user fees. These would be assessed on a cost basis to the cities and towns, and indirectly or directly passed on to individual property owners served.

Some critics of the WRC legislation say it would lead to higher water rates and to imposition of sewer-use charges levied on individual property owners. Those sewer charges currently are absorbed by communities within the metropolitan sewer district.

Several weeks ago, the state Senate passed a measure providing for for a somewhat similar semi-independent setup to run only the sewer system. But that measure evoked little enthusiasm in the House of Representatives, where Dukakis administration operatives have been trying to sell the idea.

Bay State officials have acknowledged responsibility for the problem and promised to take steps to solve it. These include the Dukakis administration's legislation to provide for a new commission to replace the water and sewer divisions of the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC). Because of financing restrictions and limitations in its authority to embark on major new construction projects, the MDC is deemed by the governor and his aides as unable to get the needed job done.

A major stumbling block to passage of the WRC proposal appears to be concern among some lawmakers that the plan would lessen, if not eliminate, their financial control and political influence over water and sewer projects. In addition, state House Ways and Means Committee chairman Michael Creedon (D) of Brockton, explaining he was tired of having judges tell the Legislature what to do, announced 24 hours before Garrity's decision that his committee would take no action on the governor's proposal at least until Dec. 5, five days after the judge's latest deadline.

While state officials say they hope the matter can be resolved within the next few days, before the House plans to wind up its work for the year, more drastic action by Judge Garrity is possible. This could include a court take-over of the MDC water and sewer divisions, with an outsider, appointed by and responsible solely to the judge, making the decisions.

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