Boston Harbor cleanup: A world-class environmental feat

Published December 1, 2000

Fourteen years ago, Bostonians scoffed when the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) promised to clean up Boston Harbor by the end of the millennium. In those days, the region’s two antiquated treatment plants had turned the harbor into little more than an open sewer, dumping tons of greasy black sludge on the outgoing tide every day.

After 14 years and $3.9 billion, MWRA has now put into place the last piece of an historic environmental turnaround by placing the Deer Island treatment plant and accompanying nine-mile outfall tunnel into full operation.

Observers say America should celebrate the success of MWRA’s cleanup of Boston Harbor, a body of water once termed by President George Bush as “the filthiest harbor in America.”

“Without question, this is one of America’s greatest environmental success stories,” said John DeVillars, former regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has overseen the cleanup.

Prior to the cleanup, boaters said they had to hose down their hulls, ropes, and anything else that touched the water, recalled Beth Nicholson, president of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, which was founded to push the harbor cleanup.

The South Boston waterfront has now become the city’s hottest real estate market, including a $1.2 billion proposed complex that will include docks and a tidal pool.

An engineering marvel

The new outfall tunnel is 24 feet in diameter and carries treated sewage from 400 feet under the Deer Island treatment plant 9.5 miles east out beneath the ocean. Openings in the last 6,600 feet of the pipe allow the treated sewage to escape into the water.

Even with the problems faced during the project’s conception and construction, observers say the Boston Harbor cleanup will be remembered as a unique achievement, a rare public works project that cost less and delivered more than expected.

From its quixotic roots in a lawsuit filed by an attorney who inadvertently stepped in raw sewage, the cleanup became the preeminent Boston environmental issue of the last 15 years, drawing the “best and the brightest” to the MWRA as well as the agencies and citizen groups that monitored the project.

Under the court-ordered cleanup, 210-acre Deer Island became a beehive of activity as up to 3,000 construction workers replaced a prison, World War II bunkers, and the old treatment plant with a state-of-the-art facility that draws 5,000 visitors a year from all over the world. The outfall tunnel alone is an engineering feat, the longest one-way tunnel in the world.

The MWRA also built one of the world’s largest fertilizer plants at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, where the sludge that used to be dumped into the harbor is heat-dried into a soil additive that is shipped all over the country.

Pricetag less than projected

The success is even more striking considering that, just a few years ago, the project faced intense criticism. Angry MWRA customers staged a “Boston tea party” in 1991 to protest fast-rising sewer bills to pay for the cleanup, demanding the project be delayed or scaled back dramatically.

Paying for the project was no easy task. By the time federal Judge David Mazzone ordered a full cleanup in 1985, the U.S. government had stopped funding sewage plant construction, leaving customers of the newly formed MWRA to foot the multi-billion-dollar bill. As a result, the MWRA had the difficult task of doubling customers’ rates in the agency’s first four years, while trying to find a location for unwanted sewage treatment facilities.

The harbor cleanup cost $3.9 billion—far less than the projected $6.1 billion due to unexpectedly low contract bids and modest project cuts. Today, the average household in the MWRA service area pays $679 a year for sewer and water service, five times more than in 1985 but a far cry from the $1,200 “rate shock” the authority once predicted.

Reprinted with permission of U.S Water News, Halstead, Kansas, of which Tom Bell is editor.

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