Our 30-Year Fight to Clean Up Boston’s Harbor of Shame

Chris Kilian | @ChrisKilianVT

As a young environmental law student at Vermont Law School in the late 1980s, I learned of the effort to clean up Boston Harbor – then regarded as one of the filthiest waterways in America.  Labeled the “Harbor of Shame” by the Boston media, the Harbor was avoided by the city and still used as a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste more than a decade after passage of the Federal Clean Water Act.

But what I also learned was that, through audacious litigation brought by a small band of lawyers and policy advocates at Conservation Law Foundation, there was hope for the Harbor.  These voices for clean water, led by CLF’s Peter Shelley, had taken on the status quo in the courts of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and in Federal Court. And their voices had been heard.  At long last, court orders had been put in place that set the stage for what became a $20 billion investment in clean water infrastructure over more than three decades.

Little did I know then that I would be working for CLF a decade later, side-by-side with Peter Shelley and other CLF lawyers including Carol Lee Rawn and Cynthia Liebman, to make sure that Harbor clean-up commitments were fulfilled and projects completed as planned.  During that time the judicial baton was passed from one federal court judge to another and new information sometimes required changes and adjustments.  Sometimes disagreements were heated and a strong judicial hand was necessary to keep things on track.  But CLF remained steadfast throughout and, in the end, clean water prevailed.

That was then. Now 33 years and 238 compliance orders later, the Massachusetts Federal District Court has declared the Boston Harbor clean up “substantially complete.” On Friday the court marked a “special milestone” with acknowledgement of the completion of construction of the last two major sewer upgrade projects envisioned by the original clean-up plan.  In his order, Judge Stearns, the last in the line of Federal judges overseeing this historic work, wrote, “The court extends its congratulations to the MWRA, the BWSC, the City of Cambridge, and all those who over the last twenty years have dedicated themselves to bringing this critical environmental project to a successful fruition.”

Even as we savor this success, we must acknowledge that much more needs to be done for clean water in Boston.  The Charles River suffers major toxic algae outbreaks that threaten public health, the Mystic River suffers from sewage overflows and toxic runoff, and the Neponset is challenged by a variety of woes.  And climate change is creating a new set of challenges as storms become more severe, rainfall increases, and sea levels rise. CLF is pursuing targeted advocacy to address each of these problems.  The culture of clean water represented through the Harbor clean up provides hope that this next generation of water pollution woes can be solved.

But after more than 30 years of effort, in large part due to CLF’s tenacious advocacy, Boston Harbor today is no longer the “Harbor of Shame”; it’s now one of the cleanest harbors in the world.  This is a success story to be savored as we face other long battles and seemingly insurmountable environmental problems across New England.

Focus Areas

Clean Water

Places

Massachusetts

Campaigns

Boston Harbor

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