From the Trenches: Peter Shelley and Boston Harbor

The cleanup of Boston Harbor wasn’t Senior Counsel Peter Shelley’s first big case with CLF (as a third-year law student in the late 1970s, he was part of the landmark effort to stop oil and gas drilling on Georges Bank), but it has certainly been the most iconic of his long career with the organization. Peter reflects on what the case meant for him, for CLF, and for the people of Boston.

In the early 1980s, about 80 tons of solid sewage waste were being discharged off Logan Airport into Boston Harbor every day. CLF recognized that the only way we would be able to create change would be to hold someone legally liable. But until the Environmental Protection Agency had a change of heart and joined our side in 1985, the case was essentially the People (represented by CLF) versus EPA, versus the Commonwealth, versus, well, everyone.

When we made the initial decision to fix this problem, no one had any idea how big the challenge was, how long it was going to take, or what it was going to cost. But one of the things that has been true about CLF from the beginning is that once we tackle something, we don’t let go until it is fixed. I filed the first legal papers in July of 1983 and in March of 2016, the case officially came to a close. I’ve been really proud that CLF and our supporters have been willing to see things through to this outcome. I don’t think there’s any question in anyone’s mind that the Boston Harbor cleanup was worth it.

This case was formative in many ways. In very practical terms it was about cleaning up and recapturing the harbor for the people of Boston. But it was formative for CLF as an organization, too. We realized we had to be more vigilant – we couldn’t just assume that government was doing its job and accomplishing all of the lofty objectives that animate critical federal laws like the Clean Water and Clean Air acts. Without a group like CLF to hold the government accountable for its responsibilities, New England would be seeing one Boston Harbor after another.

Today, CLF has one of the best clean water advocacy programs in the country. We are doing groundbreaking work that sets precedents for groups nationwide and we continue to challenge the EPA to be better – all so that we can have a safe and clean environment and realize the economic benefits that brings to the people of New England.