A LIGHT breeze blows the smell of sea and salt across wet sand, up to the row of benches overlooking Wollaston Beach in Quincy, Mass., a suburb of 88,000 on Boston's south shore. Jim, a retired aircraft mechanic out for his daily walk, looks out at the Atlantic and shakes his head. ``It's a real shame,'' he says. ``This used to be the most beautiful beach around. Used to bring my kids here in the summers to swim. Now it's so polluted you can't even bathe in the water.''
Wollaston Beach has been closed to swimming off and on for the past 10 summers. The culprit: sewage overflow from the islands in Boston Harbor, where human waste is sent to be treated. The treatment facility is overwhelmed; it now receives four times more sewage than it was built to handle. When rain comes, the sewage pours into the harbor.
Now, a new contaminant has been reported: several homes in Quincy that have illegally - perhaps accidentally - hooked up their sewage pipes to the storm drains that wash directly into the ocean. Storm drains are supposed to collect only water that runs off from streets after rain and snow.
``I'm not a popular man these days,'' says City Councilman Michael Cheney, standing on the beach. He was the first town official to admit publicly that Quincy was contributing to the problem that had before been blamed solely on Boston's sewers.
``We've always known those storm drains have had high coliform [sewage bacteria] counts, but I just thought they had collected polluted waters during high tide and then discharged them during low tide. Now we know it's coming from homes.
``And we've got to get this cleaned up by 1992,'' he adds. That's the year when the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will begin regulating city storm drains.
Quincy is not alone with the problem of polluted storm runoff. Several cities across the country are grappling with the problem. Usually, a community's oldest homes are the source. Some were hooked up in the days when no separate sewer lines existed. In other cases, drains were connected accidentally to storm pipes instead of to sewer pipes.
Industries that discharge manufacturing waste that contains heavy metals and other toxics into the town's waste streams are part of the problem.
By 1992, industries and American cities with populations of 100,000 or more will have to have permits to discharge storm-water runoff into lakes, streams, rivers, oceans, or wetlands. Smaller cities will most likely have to comply after 1992, according to the ``storm water permit application rule,'' a November 1990 amendment to the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1987.
``In those areas where you have embayments or estuaries, storm water creates a bigger problem,'' says Frank Hall, deputy director of the water permits division at the EPA in Washington. In addition to Boston Harbor, Mr. Hall says, sites that will need special attention to storm-drain runoff include Washington State's Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay, Los Angeles Bay, Chesapeake Bay, and Long Island Sound.
At a barren beach next to a Quincy community called Houghs Neck, water from the previous day's rain flows out of a 12-inch diameter pipe sitting on the beach. ``This could contain sewage, but probably not as much as others,'' Hall says. ``We won't know for sure until we test more samples.''
Several streets away, scientists from the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority dig deep into the storm sewers filled with last night's rain. Chemical tests will show which areas have the highest coliform counts; cameras will then be snaked through pipes in search of illegal hookups.
Correcting the problem will cost Quincy taxpayers millions of dollars. This is in addition to the billions of dollars committed to the massive cleanup of Boston Harbor that stems from a 1982 lawsuit Quincy brought against the city for allowing the islands of sewage to overflow and wash up on the beaches.
Back at Wollaston beach, Councilman Cheney looks out over the harbor as joggers chug by, people curb dogs, schoolchildren play street hockey, and older people relax on the benches. ``What I'm looking forward to is that great swim in 1995 when the bay is clean. When we can fish, dig clams, and go boating,'' he says.
Like many other local officials working to comply with new environmental standards, Cheney praises the efforts but laments the cost. His own family paid $1,000 last year in water and sewage fees.
``It's going to be worthwhile, but it's also tough,'' he says. ``The EPA is tightening its regulations, and at the same time it's cutting funds that would help us. It's going to be clean, but we're going to pay through the nose.''