Clean Kills? Will Boston Harbor’s Once-Rich Fisheries be Ruined by a $5 Billion Sewage Plant?

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The coastal waters north of Boston have become markedly cleaner over the past decade, mostly because of the construction of sewage treatment plants in Lynn and Salem—but the outcome has lobstermen fuming.

Although the sustainability of marine life in Massachusetts has been a recurring regional news story this year, Boston Harbor’s polluted waters made the biggest headlines in 1988. Then-Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis was embarrassed during the presidential campaign when George Bush held a water’s-edge press conference and called attention to “the dirtiest harbor in America.” Its cleanup, totaling $5 billion, began late in 1988 (too late for Dukakis’ election prospects).

In mid-April, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) announced that its new regional treatment plant would soon go on-line. The Deer Island plant, nestled on a peninsula within view of Boston’s cityscape, will separate, chlorinate and channel the effluent from 43 towns and cities into the ocean at the outskirts of the harbor. Although the mammoth effort with its eye-popping price tag might seemingly be cheered by environmentalists and commercial fishermen, it has instead met fierce resistance from both quarters.

Lobstermen say their catch disappeared from traditionally rich expanses of sea bottom once the Lynn and Salem plants went into operation, and they fear a similar fate will befall Boston Harbor, one of the nation’s richest lobster fishing grounds. Several leading marine scientists agree. The lobstering industry adds an estimated $100 million to the state’s economy.

The effect is puzzling, says Dr. Joseph Ayers, director of Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. “We do know that in places where they have sewage treatment plants, it wipes out the lobsters,” he adds. “But we can’t say for certain why.”

Ayers theorizes that the change could be linked to the effect from de-chlorination of treatment chemicals. “In Lynn, the sewage plant chlorinates heavily in the summer to keep down the fecal coliform counts on the beaches. But to neutralize the chlorine, they add sodium thiosulfate or sodium bisulfite.” When mixed, the chemicals promote conditions that degrade marine habitats, Ayers explains.

Thomas Powers, MWRA deputy director, says additional monitoring of lobster catches is scheduled. “We find it puzzling because the water is going to be dramatically cleaner, the effluent is going to be dramatically more diluted, and there should be 90 to 99 percent less chlorine coming out,” he notes. “We’re pretty confident that this is not going to harm lobsters, but we agree that you’ve got to monitor and make sure.”

William Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, which represents about 1,000 fishing boat crew members and dealers, urged state officials to pinoint what caused the lobsters to disappear in Lynn and Salem before opening the valve on Boston’s outfall pipe. “We’re not against the pipe,” he says. “We just want to make sure that it isn’t going to do to Rosie’s Hole and the other fishing areas out there what the Lynn, Salem and the old Deer Island pipes did to those harbors.”

Ted Mahoney of Nahant, a lobsterman for two decades, says cleaner water means heading farther out to sea to set trawls. “The fishing areas near Boston Harbor, Deer Island and Salem and Lynn harbors are all dead,” he laments. “I’m fishing farther out than I ever have. The lobsters just aren’t in close anymore. Look at the far fewer number of lobster boats, compared to 10 years ago.”

Mahoney says it is too easy to blame overfishing. “That just doesn’t explain what happened in Lynn and Salem. Lynn Harbor was one of the most prolific areas around. So we’re all concerned about what’s going to happen when the Boston pipe gets turned on. It could be the end of every living thing out there. If this was something that hurt the whales, it would be stopped overnight.”

Former fishing grounds void of marine life are referred to as “moonscapes,” says Mahoney, because they appear so barren on videotape. “We want water that is clean but not sterile,” he adds. “There’s also the issue of releasing millions of gallons of fresh water into the sea. What kind of impact will that have? Right now, there is life where the outfall pipe is located. In 10 years, if there’s no life, then we’ll know what happened.”

The 9.5-mile-long, 24-foot diameter pipe will channel about 360 million gallons of water daily into Massachusetts Bay. The nearest landfall is Nahant, 5.6 miles to the north.

Polly Bradley, board chairman of the grassroots Safer Waters in Massachusetts (SWIM), says the battle to locate the outfall farther out to sea was fought and lost. “If there are problems once it’s on-line, then we’d like to see changes,” she adds. “There could be problems with the treatment, such as too much chlorine or other chemicals. And they’re only building three of the four secondary-treatment batteries that were originally planned.”

SWIM has also been focusing on the monitoring of juvenile lobsters. “The previous monitoring was not very thorough,” Bradley notes. “The MWRA will monitor, but it might be too little, too late. Of course, the irony is that the people doing the monitoring are the people who have been against monitoring all along.”

The 10-year cleanup effort has sent water and sewer rates in MWRA user communities soaring by eight to 10 percent annually, and federal aid has been slow to arrive. But on a brighter note: When combined with secondary treatment facilities that have also been built, Deer Island should bring the region into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, as the plant was designed to accommodate sewage from more than two million residents. Meanwhile, many Boston-area communities are required to separate storm drains from sewer lines, which will reduce the flow of waste water to the treatment plant, especially during heavy rains.