Harbor Cleanup Moves Forward

Disagreement remains over treatment methods, and who should pay gargantuan costs. BOSTON'S $6 BILLION CHALLENGE

RIGHT at noon, a blast rocks Deer Island, and another 17-foot thick wall of concrete bites the dust. This World War II bunker is being blown up to make way for a new waste-water treatment facility that will help purify America's filthiest harbor. This is the largest court-ordered cleanup effort in the history of the Clean Water Act of 1972, and it's been a long time in coming. The harbor has been dumped into for 150 years.

While the $6.1 billion project has been planned since the 1970s and federally mandated since 1985, arguments persist over who should pay for it.

An Environmental Protection Agency grant program used to pick up 75 percent of the tab for these kinds of projects, but that program has been phased out. A recently released report by the National Toxics Campaign Fund says the federal government should pay half of the cost.

But President Bush, who boated around the filthy harbor during the presidential campaign to tweak his opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis, in January cut out of his budget $20 million formerly authorized by Congress for the cleanup. Congressional leaders believe they can get some of the money back.

The cost will be borne mainly by area residents, says the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). The average household will be paying $1,000 in annual water and sewer fees by 1999, when the project must be completed, says the agency, which is overseeing the cleanup.

The National Toxics Campaign Fund report also says that industries that produce toxic chemicals should be paying higher rates per gallon of discharge than householders. Right now, the top 20 polluting industries are paying $2 million in sewer fees, according to the report, which suggests they pay eight times that.

The MWRA ``was mandated to set both fair and environmentally sound rates,'' says Sanford Lewis, coauthor of the report. ``They have done neither. They should make the polluters pay dearly for their toxics discharge into the sewers.''

Paul Levy, executive director of the MWRA, denies Mr. Lewis's charge that the rate structure is illegal, and says the report overlooks the fact that those industries have had to invest thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars in pretreatment facilities to meet strict discharge standards.

``So their rates might be the same per gallon, but they are already paying more for disposal of sewage per gallon than other users,'' Mr. Levy says. ``That being said, it still may make sense to have a rate structure that charges them on their actual toxics contribution to the sewer system, and we are evaluating that.''

But if Massachusetts adopted this policy, industries might move to other states, he says. ``That's one of the arguments for having a national fee system rather than a local one,'' says Levy.

During the 1970s, the idea of updating the two antiquated sewage treatment facilities was addressed but lack of funding and political leadership stalled it. In 1986, a federal judge ordered a month-by-month timetable.

THE harbor cleanup will be a logistical tour de force.

It consists of nine major construction projects, including primary and secondary treatment plants to process the city's sewage; piers and a water transportation system for materials and workers, a five-mile tunnel to bring waste water from the southern part of the city, and a nine-mile, 25-foot diameter tunnel for dispersing treated effluent in deep water. Sludge will be processed into pellets for fertilizer.

Now there are only about 200 workers on Deer Island (actually a peninsula). At peak construction in 1993, it will be a beehive with 2,400 workers. Deer is tiny, and with as many as 30 contractors working at once, each will be able to store only a few days' supplies on the staging area. A larger site is being prepared in the city of Quincy, and materials will be ferried over. To make room on the island, a prison has to be decommissioned and demolished, and a large hill removed.

Dirt from the hill will be used to build a barrier wall so that Winthrop residents won't get smells, noise, and dust from the work.

And to save the residents from having several thousand workers and hundreds of trucks barreling through congested streets at the same time the city is also hoping to undertake a mammoth highway project, there are plans to ferry workers over (if they can wean contractors from their cars).

A major problem still to be addressed is the 1,000 miles of combined sewer overflow pipes that discharge rainwater and sewage into the harbor during wet weather. That will cost an additional $1 billion; without it, the harbor will not be fishable or swimmable, observers say.

Some scientists say that there would be enough money to take care of that problem if the project were to use an advanced primary treatment instead of the secondary treatment plant. It would be almost as effective as the secondary plant, but would cost a fraction, says Donald Harleman, a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The process causes small particles to clump together into large ones by neutralizing the electrical charge between them, says Dr. Harleman. The larger particles are then easier to dispose of. The method has been used successfully in southern California for 10 years, he says.

He says that the operating costs would run to about $10 million a year, about the same as the secondary plant, but the city would save $2.5 billion by not building the secondary plant.

The Clean Water Act requires the construction of secondary treatment plants, the MWRA responds. Waivers have been applied for in the past and denied.

``Obviously that debate is going to rage but we're committed to going ahead,'' says Walter Armstrong, deputy director of program management for the cleanup. ``We're aiming for the highest environmental benefit.''

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