How the Myth of the Boston Harbor Cleanup Hides a Subsidy to Pollute

by David Stoff

I’m going to tell you a story. I have a point of view. I’m not hiding it. Depending on your point of view, this story is either history, or myth. It’s the story of the cleanup of Boston Harbor.  Think it’s over? You can see the crown jewel, the Deer Island Treatment Plant, standing by the edge of the harbor. Deer Island is indeed a gem, but when it rains, the sewer systems feeding into it routinely spew out raw sewage by design. It’s one of the problems the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) was created to solve.  There’s a name for it: Combined Sewer Overflow. How this problem is solved will show us a lot about what our “climate resilient” future looks like.

The Beautiful Swan

The MWRA has a plan to control the overflows from its sewers when it rains. This is how they describe it:

“Prior to 1988 treated and untreated sewer overflows occurred in every rainfall event approximately 100 times a year. The Long-term Control Plan is intended to reduce total discharges by approximately 87%, in a typical year [my italics] from 3.3 billion gallons to 400 million gallons, and 93% of the remaining 400 million gallons is to be treated at one of four of the MWRA’s upgraded treatment facilities.”

It sounds so good, but that narrative was merely aspirational. The MWRA’s control plan has cost $911 million to date. Its goal was to minimize, not eliminate, sewer overflows, and then to change state water quality standards to accommodate the untreated discharges. Last year the MWRA’s Final CSO Assessment Report was supposed to give regulators the green light to make these changes, but 16 outfalls failed even to achieve the level of control required in the plan. MWRA and two other communities who operate the sewers have been ordered to draft new control plans. Problem solved? Story over? Not really.

The Ugly Duckling

The ugly duckling is the Alewife Brook, a narrow 2-mile-long stream that emerges behind the T stop of the same name. The MWRA control plan allows for annual discharges of 7.6 million gallons of sewage to Alewife Brook. By way of comparison, the load for the 80-mile-long Charles River is about 8 million gallons. The MWRA says that in 2019 about 9 million gallons should have flowed into the Alewife Brook because it rained more than in the hypothetical “typical year” used in the control plan. MWRA’s actual discharge volume was monitored and was more than 23 million gallons. Yet the MWRA was in compliance with regulatory requirements. You knew that was coming, didn’t you?

This is possible because, for twenty-three years, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has waived water quality standards for sewer overflows from the MWRA. The numerical limits for bacteria, solids, color, turbidity, have been replaced with a narrative standard, another story if you will. MWRA is required to work toward meeting the level of control in the plan approved by the Federal Court based on a “typical year” which would have 46 inches of rain. While MWRA is working to meet this standard, Massachusetts will not hold them accountable for what would otherwise be a violation.

The Ratepayer Rebellion & the Myth of Affordable Control of Sewer Overflows

It costs money to fix sewers. MWRA frames the choice this way: spend about twice what it cost to build Deer Island to dig up and replace all the sewers within the district that combine sewage (what you flush) with storm drainage (what falls on the ground), or live with intermittent sewer overflows because that’s what’s affordable.

“Affordable” in the sense in which the word is used here has its roots in the “Ratepayer Rebellion” over the cost of the Deer Island Treatment Plant.   Because it changed the way sewer overflows are regulated nationally, the story of the Ratepayer Rebellion deserves scrutiny. There are indisputable facts. In 1993 Senator Kennedy and MWRA Executive Director MacDonald testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Congress appropriated funds for the Boston Harbor cleanup.  Beyond that, the line between history and myth blurs depending on who’s telling the story. The MWRA tells it this way:

Massachusetts was in the grip of a deep recession. With only 6% of the nation’s population, we’d lost 30% of the jobs. Cash strapped ratepayers could no longer pay the skyrocketing water bills necessary to complete the construction of Deer Island. The specter of community default loomed so the MWRA turned to Congress for help. Senator Kennedy himself made sure funds were appropriated to continue the Boston Harbor cleanup. After that scare, regulators saw to it that “affordability” was baked into federal law. Controlling sewer overflows would be affordable to both sewer operators and ratepayers.

In this telling, MWRA was responding to angry “ratepayers.” Would you feel differently about the story if you knew MWRA and other water utilities had been lobbying to change regulations for sewer overflows before ratepayers rebelled?

The story can be told another way. In this telling, citizens were working in a complex political arena with institutional players who had their own agendas. The deep recession was still there, but this story begins with busing — Boston’s wound that never heals. Did Stanley Forman’s photo already flash across your mind? The same Federal Court that had ordered busing to desegregate the schools now asserted control over the sewer system. A massive project was needed to comply with the court order. Resentment? You decide. MWRA knew that, unlike the other big project in town, the Central Artery, the cost of the Harbor cleanup would fall squarely on the backs of communities around Boston and not on the federal government. If MWRA took money from local aid to pay off its construction bonds, as state law allowed, public support for the Harbor cleanup, and for the MWRA itself, would evaporate.     

So MWRA recast itself as the defender of citizens struggling with the burden placed on them by the Court. They went to Congress with the story of a second Boston Tea Party born of high water bills. They leveraged federal support for the Boston Harbor cleanup by claiming that lack of political consensus would cause the project to fail. Everyone in the country knew what that failure would look like because of a picture from an April day in 1976. They got their money. In the process, MWRA helped create what we’ve become — the “new” Boston, with the cleaner Harbor at its heart. It’s why, whenever activists (of which I’m one) meet with the MWRA, the conversation starts with something like “what you did with the Harbor was a miracle.”  The miracle is not just cleaner water in Boston Harbor.  It’s that their actions helped heal a wounded city. No one can take that miracle away. No one wants to.

But if you can see that these versions of the Ratepayer Rebellion are just different ways of telling a story, can you also see how the inexorable pull of a myth blinds us to a simpler, less emotionally satisfying, view of the Ratepayer Rebellion?  That’s the history of a public utility acting to lower its costs. Always. The evidence for this is right there in the Alewife Brook.

How a Myth Hides a Subsidy

The Ratepayer Rebellion is why sewer overflows are treated differently than discharges from Deer Island. Controls for sewer overflows must be both cost effective, in and of themselves, and “affordable” for the communities implementing them.  The sewage is the same though, and the affordable dollars spent controlling overflows are used to remove the same three pollutants: Bacteria, Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) and Total Suspended Solids (TSS).  Two big thick books, the Final Combined Sewer Overflow Facilities Plan and Environmental Impact Report (1997) * ** *** **** ***** ******, and The Notice of Project Change for the Alewife Brook CSO Control Project (2001), describe how these pollutants are to be removed from overflows to the Alewife Brook. From them are drawn the pollutant concentrations in the overflows, and the cost for removal by various control alternatives.  The volumes and pollutant concentrations are a mix of metric and U.S. system units.  I did a calculation to put a price on the Total Suspended Solids discharged to Alewife Brook in the 2019 overflows that were above the limits authorized in the MWRA’s control plan. These were arguably illegal.

Cost of Total Suspended Solids Discharged into Alewife Brook in 2019

Not treating sewer overflows is worth millions of dollars to MWRA.

In 2019 when the control plan failed to meet its target the excess sewage dumped in the Alewife Brook effectively generated $615,977 of free money for the MWRA. Not having to treat BOD will have generated about twice as much, while not treating Bacteria – nearly thirty times more. Not treating sewer overflows is worth millions of dollars to MWRA. If there’s a real story here, it’s the scale of these cost savings. This is why affordable control of sewer overflows to Boston Harbor is a myth. It only works because MWRA can avoid treating 7% of the sewage flowing to Boston Harbor in places like the Alewife Brook where treatment would be most expensive.

The MWRA prides itself on receiving no state appropriations. Really? Construction for the CSO control plan was substantially complete in 2017 and the MWRA capital budget zeros out construction funding for the program in 2024. It seems that MWRA intends to use untreated overflows to balance the books for a while. 

If Massachusetts wanted untreated sewage overflows to end, they’d be taxed – not subsidized. Instead state regulators have granted MWRA a seemingly perpetual subsidy to pollute our rivers and streams. It gets very hard to tell if the Boston Harbor cleanup is the story of how hard-nosed choices about “affordable” pollution controls resulted in an undeniable environmental success, or a cautionary tale of how a large public utility rents Massachusetts’ waters for sewage disposal for pennies on the dollar in a successful effort to cut their own costs.

Back to the Beginning

There is an ongoing discussion about the “typical year” used in the computer model that is the heart of the MWRA Long-Term Control Plan. Nature is forcing our hand with more intense and frequent storms. These are hard to model. EPA argues that NOAA rain data that includes the effects of climate change must be used. For their part, MWRA stands by their legal obligation to achieve the level of control in a 2006 stipulation to the Federal Court, where they are still the defendant. If EPA wants the sewers to do better when it rains more, they’ll need to pay for it. It turns out that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has money to do just that.

The discussion about the “typical year” is a polite way of talking about how much untreated sewage will spill into Boston Harbor. It takes us back to the Boston Harbor court case, which the key to understanding whether what you’re reading is history or myth. You can believe the case was started by the Conservation Law Foundation, or that it started when a Quincy solicitor’s foot landed in a pile of human waste on Wollaston Beach. I believe it started in 1972 when the Clean Water Act became law. That’s when the citizens of the United States wrested control of the nation’s waters from polluters who thought they owned them, and could use them as they pleased.

The Clean Water Act created a permit program called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Elimination is the promise of the Act. All the lobbying for regulatory changes, all the litigation by water utilities, all the arguments about what’s affordable, these all fail when you can say that there’s no path to eliminating a source of pollution. That’s when the promise is broken. That’s where we are with sewer overflows. MWRA would have us believe that the NPDES permit is a rental contract. But the waters of the United States belong to all of us, and we’ll get them back.

The fable of the Ugly Duckling

A fable is a story that teaches a lesson. The fable of the Ugly Duckling teaches us about how people make judgments. Every child knows that the beautiful swan and the ugly duckling are the same bird. Likewise the Boston Harbor is beautiful, and we want the story of how it got that way to be the same. The MWRA always tells a compelling story, backed up with their data. In this instance we’d do well to heed the squawks of the ugly duckling.  The Alewife Brook teaches us how people living with sewer overflows experience them. The water smells. Your only park is degraded. You never let your kids play in the puddles. Every other nuisance is located nearby because there’s an open sewer in the neighborhood. Twenty-eight years ago I was at a permit hearing where a woman testified how sewage from the Alewife Brook flooded her home and made her sick.  She was not alone. The officials in the room disregarded what she had to say. Their belief in a set of regulations required it. But those regulations are just the product of voices from the Ratepayer Rebellion. The voice in the room with you is subordinated to the echo of other voices because, in this myth, the money that’s saved is more real than some people’s lives. Is this the future you want? 

The story of the  Boston Harbor cleanup is still shrouded in myth, not yet a legend, because it’s ongoing. Actions we take now can affect the outcome. MWRA will need to recreate a political consensus it once enjoyed in order to secure more federal funding. The web of “affordability” regulations they’ve given us can be employed to implement any level of control for which there’s a political consensus. Our duty is to demonstrate some leadership for the rest of the country by putting the Ratepayer Rebellion behind us. We’ve subsidized enough computerized penny pinching.   The Governor deciding that Massachusetts will require primary treatment, at a minimum, of any discharge from our sewers would do it. This would show that Massachusetts believes in the promise of the Clean Water Act and is willing to fight for it.

Let’s invest federal climate resiliency funds to change lives in the communities most affected by the work still left undone. In the places MWRA currently plans to use as open sewers. Adopting and enforcing water quality standards is a core function of state government. If we say sewer overflows require treatment to meet the Massachusetts standard, there’s nothing Clarence and his cabal can do about it. It’s something we can do right now.

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