Court's Sewer-Hookup Ban Could Put Boston in a Bind

THE message is loud and clear: Clean up Boston Harbor now, or your crippled economy may worsen. That's what United States District Judge A. David Mazzone said to Massachusetts legislators recently when he declared a moratorium on new sewage hookups in 43 Greater Boston communities until the state finds a landfill site for sewage sludge.

It was Judge Mazzone who ordered the harbor cleanup in the original 1986 lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. While environmentalists support the judge's tenacity in holding the state to the court-ordered cleanup of the harbor, other groups are crying foul.

Newly elected Republican Gov. William Weld, who promised in his campaign last fall that the town of Walpole would not be home to the landfill, took the case back to court on Monday, April 8. Weld is asking for time to find a different landfill site.

Several communities with existing landfills have expressed interest, says Susan Tierney, Massachuetts secretary of Environmental Affairs.

The US Environmental Protection Agency already has spent four years and $10 million on environmental assessments. It determined that the area in Walpole, adjoining a maximum-security prison and owned by the state, is suitable.

Meanwhile, say critics, the moratorium is strangling commercial and industrial development. Builders and bankers say the moratorium couldn't come at a worse time.

"It's doing great damage to consumer confidence at a time when we should be doing everything we can to help the residents and consumers of Massachusetts be encouraged about the future," says Tracy Lyons, associate counsel for the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts.

Across the eastern part of the state, costly condominiums and low-income housing projects are said to sit vacant while would-be residents wait without homes - in relative's houses, in hotels, and in cars. Construction workers, who usually begin work in the spring, are awaiting orders from builders, who cannot get building permits. Developers, who must repay bank loans, worry they will lose their properties to foreclosure.

Some 5,200 housing units have been approved for construction in the no-hookups area in 1991, says Patricia Johnson, economic development specialist with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston. If the moratorium lasts more than a year, she says, some 18,000 more buildings, already approved for occupation in 1992 and after, will be stopped.

The ban applies only to industrial and commercial buildings that discharge more than 2,000 gallons of sewer water each day; single-family homes are exempted, as they discharge roughly 400 gallons a day.

One project that stands mostly vacant is the Seawinds condominium, a high-rise in Quincy, Mass., on Boston's South Shore. Gary Roman, a banker who acquired the building with another partner through foreclosure, says he has already signed up 55 buyers for units in the eight-story building. All 123 units are ready for occupancy, he says, but only 17 have occupancy permits because the moratorium prevented the city from finishing inspection.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), the agency in charge of maintaining the new sewage-treatment plant and discharging water to users in the 43 communities, can only wait for the legislature and Governor Weld to settle on a site.

State Rep. Steve Angelo (D) of Saugus, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee, says it is up to the governor to make the next move. "After spending millions of dollars, Walpole was chosen, and I feel the governor should file legislation to transfer the Walpole site from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to the MWRA so the moratorium can be lifted," he says.

But Joanne Muti, chair of the Walpole Citizen Action Committee, says Walpole is unsuitable for several reasons: It is surrounded by wetlands; it is 200 feet from a prison that houses 4,000 inmates; it could contaminate residential wells in the area; and the MWRA system serves only half of all Walpole residents.

Besides, she says, "having the state's largest prison gives us a stigma already. Can you imagine what a sewage landfill would do?"

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