Thirty years ago, during the 1988 presidential campaign, then Vice President George H.W. Bush took a boat tour of Boston Harbor and mocked the environmental record of his rival, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, by calling polluted waters a “harbor of shame.” Bush was right. For decades, Boston had dumped barely treated wastewater into the harbor, even though a court-ordered cleanup had just begun.
Since 1986, my colleagues and I have been studying tumors in the Boston Harbor Flounder, which has been a major driver of public outcry over the state of the harbor. Flounder is tasty and easy to catch and has long been a popular commercial and recreational species in the coastal waters of Massachusetts. But a 1984 study showed that 8% of the winter flounder sampled in Boston Harbor had liver tumors. Another study found tumors in 15 percent of flounder and suggested they were caused by exposure to sewage-borne contaminants.
Today the landscape is very different. In a recent study, we provided evidence that the goal of cleaning up toxic chemicals from Boston Harbor has been met. Boston Harbor’s troubles are noticeably healthier, even those caught near an offshore outlet where treated wastewater is now discharged into Massachusetts Bay. Indeed, disease levels associated with exposure to pollutants are lower in plaice captured near the outlet than in the early 1990s. The change of course from Boston Harbor shows that severely damaged ecosystems can recover and provide benefits much higher than cleaning costs.
Impact of the Clean Water Act
In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which established the legal framework for regulating the discharges of pollutants into US waters. At that time, Boston Harbor was severely polluted.
Sewage discharges had made local beaches a risk to bathers since the late 1800s. Large quantities of pesticides, PCBs and heavy metals also flowed into the port in the mid-20th century, contaminating sediments and marine organisms. Two overloaded treatment plants discharged largely untreated sewage and sludge into the shallow harbor waters.
Finally, in 1982, the Boston suburb of Quincy, the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation, and the federal government sued Boston under the Clean Water Act for failing to update their wastewater treatment systems. Evidence of tumors in the flounder helped convince Judge Paul Garrity that dramatic action was needed. As Garrity stated:
“The current and potential impact of pollution on the health, well-being and safety of people living and working near Boston Harbor and using it for commercial, recreational and other purposes is astounding. The damage to that environment and to the creatures that inhabit it could very well become irreversible unless measures are taken to control, and possibly exclude, pollution and the consequent destruction of that precious resource “.
As a result, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was established in 1985 and began a court-ordered cleanup. The program called for an end to the sewage sludge discharges by December 1991, the development of secondary wastewater treatment by 1997 and the construction of a 9.5-mile tunnel that would bring the treated effluents ashore by 2000. The Construction cost of the new secondary treatment plant and exhaust tunnel was $ 3.8 billion.
Fishing for changeable plaice
Even in the dirtiest period in the 1970s and 1980s, Boston Harbor was a mecca for recreational flounder fishing. At one point, six companies rented fishing boats from Hough’s Neck in Quincy Bay, the southern arm of Boston Harbor, to flounder fishermen and spent cold months in Boston Harbor. This peninsula was known as the “flounder capital of the world”.