Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Boston Harbor Anniversary: Swimmable and fishable

Now, this was a great day in 1991.  Instead of having a big event with elected and regulatory officials who would have stolen the scene, we quietly went to Deer Island and--with the guys who had loyally and with little support run the treatment plant for years--went down into a vault and--at 10:23am--simply shut off the sludge discharge line.

As noted by Boston Globe reporter Dianne Dumanoski, who had broken the Harbor story several years earlier:

For almost four decades, tons of sludge -- the smelly, gooey, black byproduct of the sewage treatment process, laced with heavy metals and toxic chemicals -- poured daily into Boston Harbor, making the water black and foul-smelling, suffocating bottom-dwelling creatures, contaminating the sediments, depleting the oxygen, and sometimes killing fish.

This was the beginning of the recovery of "the dirtiest harbor in America."  It is now swimmable and fishable.

And, lately, the Harbor Cleanup played a role in diplomatic negotiations over international environmental protection.  The New York Times reported:

The administration’s agreement with China on greenhouse gas emissions was less dramatic. It was quietly negotiated over months by the State Department’s climate negotiator, Todd D. Stern, and the White House’s adviser on climate issues, John Podesta, who went to Beijing a week before Mr. Obama to try to nail down the details.

But it, too, had its made-for-the-memoir moments. In October, Secretary of State John Kerry played host in Boston to China’s top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi. Over lunch at a Legal Sea Foods restaurant, Mr. Kerry pointed to Boston Harbor, saying it had been cleaned up by environmental regulations.

The visit evidently made an impression on Mr. Yang: A month later, Mr. Obama and President Xi Jinping stood together in the Great Hall of the People to announce they had reached a landmark deal.

But I bet John left out some of the details.  Like the fact that the regulations had been in place for well over a decade, but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (where he had been Lt. Gov.) had to be brought to federal court to comply with them.  It took a lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation, headed by Doug Foy, to force a compliance plan under the Clean Water Act.  The delay was used effectively by George Bush in his presidential campaign against Mike Dukakis, neutralizing the latter's much more extensive environmental credentials by saying, "My opponent will say that he will do for America what he's done for Massachusetts. No, that's why I fear for the country.''  Here's the video.

Indeed, the state's delay in the cleanup was later termed one of "the most expense public policy mistake in the history of New England" by EPA Regional Administrator Michael Deland.  Well, almost.  The EPA itself had failed to enforce the law for many years and was first named as a co-defendant in the CLF lawsuit.  Deland later switched sides and became a plaintiff with the CLF--a really neat legal maneuver!

But perhaps John didn't want to spook the Chinese by suggesting that there should be an enforcement provision in the greenhouse gas agreement!

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