Three decades in the making, CLF celebrates a new, clean Boston Harbor

Seth Kaplan

The new storage tunnel will result in significantly cleaner water for beachgoers at Carson Beach in South Boston. Photo credit: bostonharborwalk.com

It’s been a busy day for South Boston on several fronts – but the dawning of a new era for a transformed Boston Harbor and the environmentalists, legislators and other officials who have been fighting for a clean harbor for nearly three decades. Today marks the opening of a massive sewage holding tank – called a CSO (combined sewer overflow) storage tunnel –  under South Boston that will store gallons of stormwater that would normally overwhelm the city’s sewer system and cause untreated sewage to be released into Boston Harbor. The change will make the beach “one of the cleanest in America” and bring the rate of beach closures down from eight per summer to one roughly every five years, according to this front page article in today’s Boston Globe.

It’s the gratifying ending to a story in which CLF has played a lead role since the beginning. Twenty-eight years ago, CLF filed one of the key lawsuits ordering that the harbor be cleaned up. Today, CLF’s Peter Shelley is one of the only original lawyers involved in the massive and long-running court case who has seen it through to fruition.  Key participants in this morning’s ribbon cutting ceremony for the new storage tunnel came on to the scene decades after the filing, in 1983, of the still-pending case that still bears the label Conservation Law Foundation vs. Metropolitan District Commission (the now-disbanded state agency that used to oversee the water and sewerage systems of Greater Boston).

The ceremony today reflected back on the long struggle to clean the harbor but, appropriately, also looked to the future.  Frederick Laskey, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), the state authority created to execute on the massive harbor cleanup, spoke eloquently about the collaboration between governments, business the advocacy community and the neighborhoods that was needed to execute on a vision of a cleaner harbor and beaches. Laskey especially noted the courage of the representatives of the many municipalities in the Greater Boston region in accepting the regional nature of the project and the need to spread the cost of creating swimmable beaches and a clean harbor across the whole metropolitan area.

State Senator Jack Hart, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan (who also serves as Chairman of the MWRA Board) and  Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Edward Lambert echoed Laskey’s remarks, emphasizing the importance of community collaboration and the value of clean beaches.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns, who today presides over CLF v. MDC and the continuing harbor cleanup, discussed the hard work needed to get to this day and offered a tribute to the vision of Judge David Mazzone, who had previously handled the case. In 2004, during his final illness in 2004, Mazzone handed the case over to Judge Stearns, conveying his belief that a CSO tunnel was needed and “could be completed by May 2011” for the cost of less than $250 million (in this morning’s speech, Stearns noted that the project came in right on that schedule and in fact under the initial cost estimate).

EPA Regional Administrator Curt Spalding spoke about the difficulty of executing on a project of this magnitude and the importance of core environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, which he proudly noted was championed by another Rhode Islander, Senator John Chafee, that provided clear direction regarding our national policy and the need to create clean and swimmable waters.

Thanks to the tenacity of CLF and others, today’s parents don’t have to worry that a day at the beach could make their children sick, and a new generation of kids won’t have beach closings put a damper on their summer days. But our work is nowhere near complete.  Yes, we need to continue to ensure that the right infrastructure, like this CSO structure in South Boston, is in place to treat our stormwater appropriately. But even more importantly we need to build and manage our buildings, our land and our roads in a way that recaptures as much rain water as possible.  We need to treat rain and snow as the precious resources that they are, moving away from a view that these gifts from above are a waste product that needs to be treated and shunted off into the sea. With those notions in mind, Massachusetts will continue to set an example for the region and the nation of the right way to restore a precious community resource and iconic piece of New England’s history.

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