Property owners will foot the bill for Boston Harbor cleanup

THOUSANDS of eastern Massachusetts property owners may soon be wishing they had their own wells and septic systems. They are facing rising water and sewer-service bills that could average $1,200 a year per family within a decade. And that may be just the beginning, especially if, besides the court-ordered cleanup of Boston Harbor, a major upgrading of the Metropolitan water system is required by pending federal regulations.

Clearly, nothing short of a massive infusion of public funds can prevent or slow a steep rise in rates charged for clean water and sewage disposal, essential services that many Bay State residents have long taken for granted.

The need for much of the harbor cleanup might have been avoided if state officials been more foresighted. For decades it was obvious that Boston Harbor was becoming heavily polluted and little more than an unsightly, smelly open sewer. Yet those in government who could have done something about it turned their eyes and noses elsewhere, perhaps hoping it would somehow go away.

State and federal courts, however, have mandated the harbor cleanup. And the state has little choice but to see that the polluting ends, no matter what the cost.

The first and easiest step was establishing a special state agency to take on what could be a more than $3 billion task. The agency, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), must have strong and continuing political support. This may prove difficult. Choosing a site for a sludge treatment plant, for instance, could be especially tough, and the decision seems bound to displease local residents.

Even more challenging for the MWRA may be convincing property owners in the 46 cities and towns in its water district and the 43 in its sewer district to accept higher water and sewer rates. Such bills, which now average $300 a family a year, are expected to reach $546 by 1989. In the 1990s the bill could reach $1,200. That's nearly $25 a week.

But if anyone can build the climate for public acceptance of what is perhaps inevitable, it's Paul F. Levy, the MWRA's new executive director. During his five years as chairman of the state Department of Public Utilities he proved to be very consumer-oriented.

While local residents served by the MWRA will have to pay more for water and sewage disposal, Mr. Levy's task will to put together a team that will get the job done quickly and with a minimum of dissent. Until the sewage-treatment plants are built on Boston Harbor's Deer Island, the sludge handling facility made operational, and overflow catch basins upgraded or replaced, the harbor cleanup cannot proceed.

US District Court Judge A.David Mazzone will be looking over the MWRA's shoulder, insisting that the agency stick to a 12-year timetable for the project.

Clearly the cleanup would have cost less if years ago the state had come to grips with the problem and its primary cause: a worn out and inadquate sewer system. Until recently, moreover, substantially more potential federal aid was available for such projects.

The $600 million total bonding authorization provided the MWRA at its inception may prove hardly more than a drop in the bucket of what is needed. There is little doubt the agency will have to ask state lawmakers to increase its borrowing limit. The only questions are when? And how much?

Particularly important for the program's success will be Mr. Levy's relations with legislators and other government officials in search for the necessary funding.

Much, too, could depend on the level of backing from the 11-member MWRA board, and the extent to which that panel can resist the temptation to put its fingers into day-to-day operations.

What might be needed if the harbor cleanup is to proceed on schedule and remain relatively immune from political pressures, is a slimmer governing panel than the current one, which seems to represent sometimes conflicting or competing constituencies.

Should the MWRA fail to get the job done, including the tough decisions that might ruffle the feathers of certain potentially influential individuals or groups, it just might be necessary for the federal courts to take a more aggressive role in the cleanup.

That could wind up costing water and sewer users, the state treasury, and municipalities throughout Greater Boston even more.

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