America's 'filthiest harbor' now a model

Once derided as a sewer, Boston Harbor moves from ridicule to national renown.

Bostonians have never been shy about throwing anything and everything into their harbor.

Whether it be East India tea, chemicals from Industrial Revolution factories, or raw modern-day sewage, Bay Staters have often treated their primary port as little more than a trash bin.

Famously, George Bush in 1988 looked at the plumes of sludge and tides of syringes, coke cans, and foul-smelling algae and dubbed it "the filthiest harbor in America" - a charge that helped sink Gov. Michael Dukakis's bid for the presidency.

Today, however, Boston Harbor is vastly changed. It is one of the cleanest harbors in America and a model for how to help the nation's troubled urban waterways.

The water - once so dirty you could see only a foot down - has become clear enough to see the bottom in some places. Seals and porpoises are routinely seen out among the harbor islands - which are now a national park. Someone even saw a humpback whale earlier this year.

True, it might not be mistaken for Bermuda, but Boston's improvement, by any measure, has been enormous and a point of national distinction.

"This will go down in the annals of water-quality history as a very significant project," says Ken Kirk, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies in Washington. "Boston is a model for other cities around the country."

Mission accomplished

The final report for the $4 billion cleanup was filed last Friday. To many, it was a historic moment. But Bruce Berman knows that it's just the culmination of a process that took hold over many years. He has been floating around the harbor in the Shamrock - his green, 22-footer - for a decade.

"Is the harbor better?" he asks. "Go take a big, deep smell. It smells like an ocean, not like a sewer. It was a sewer."

His praise is poignant. After all, he works for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay - a group whose founder launched the cleanup with a lawsuit in 1982.

In his work, Mr. Berman has traveled to cities along the Great Lakes, as well as New York and Oakland, Calif., and he says Boston is now among the cleanest. "It's fair to say that this is the most dramatic [water-related] success in environmental history," he says.

Others are hesitant to go that far, but they don't deny the progress.

It used to be that 43 communities here - and 1 percent of the US population - funneled their waste through one dilapidated facility. Now, that waste filters through a new plant, the nation's second largest, sitting on Deer Island like a dozen ivory turbans.

Where Boston once dumped 165 tons of solid waste a day into the harbor, it now releases only 35 tons.

The harbor "was in very, very bad shape," says Ken Moraff, regional chief of enforcement for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Now, it's very, very good."

The evidence is pervasive: Swimming, once thought to be a risky proposition, is now commonplace. On Wolloston Flats south of town, throngs of rubber-booted clammers have returned, rejuvenating a $1 million-a-year local industry that had been in hibernation for a decade. And Boston's biggest new development - $1 billion of hotels, shops, and offices - is going along the waterfront. The project, including Boston's first new art museum in a century, would have been much less savory if the harbor were still choked with black sludge.

"If the only constituency you're helping by spending $4 billion is 150 harbor seals, it's irrelevant," says Berman. "What you are really starting to see is people coming back to the waterfront."

Problem for Cape Cod?

Not everyone has been pleased by the project, though.

For one, it has not yet handled the problem of urban runoff; a good downpour can overflow storm drains and send sewage spilling into the harbor. Moreover, a fair bit of Cape Cod looks toward the harbor with foreboding.

That's because the signature piece of the cleanup is a 9.5-mile-long subterranean pipe that takes the treated sewage from Deer Island far out to sea - and closer to Cape Cod. The pipe is crucial to the project: Boston Harbor is so shallow that even the twice-treated sewage creates too much pollution. Moving it out into deeper water dilutes it more.

To allay concerns, the federal EPA has ordered one of the most expensive and extensive monitoring regimens in the country for the pipe. But critics say the nutrients in the sewage will cloud the water, lead to algal blooms, and imperil endangered species including whales.

Environmentalists say they'll keep a close eye on the project. "There are still beach closings," says Mr. Moraff. "There's still work to be done."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.