Sunday, January 30, 2011

Throw the snow in the Harbor!

As I was walking home last night, I saw this scene on Arlington Street in downtown Boston. I was reminded of a story I heard the other day on WBUR's Radio Boston about the problems being faced by Boston and other communities as they engage in snow removal from municipal streets. One aspect of the problem is that state environmental officials have prohibited Boston and other coastal communities from disposing of street snow in the Harbor.

Now, I don't think anyone can contest my environmental bona fide's. After all, I ran the agency that accomplished the Boston Harbor Cleanup, one of the world's largest environmental remediation projects. But this is one rule that I just don't understand.

Yes, I know that snow on city streets picks up all kinds of chemicals and pollutants from the city environment, and I know it also picks up salt and chemical de-icers during its residence time.

But, instead of dumping this snow in the harbor, it gets trucked -- using thousands of gallons of fuel which create all kinds of air emissions -- to inland locations. What happens there? It melts, and those same pollutants enter the ground water system. Or they go into city storm drains, where they end up where? Boston Harbor.

Perchance some of the melted snow goes down storm drains that empty into the city's combined system, which sends the wastewater to the Deer Island sewage treatment plant. In that case, such contaminants that are captured are concentrated in the sludge at the plant, which is eventually made into fertilizer, from which the chemicals leach out onto farmland somewhere. The contaminants that are not captured in the sludge go out through a tunnel 9.5 miles long with the plant's effluent to Massachusetts Bay, the receiving water for . . . Boston Harbor.

I just don't see the point. Why don't we save the extra expense so Boston and other coastal communities can use that money for things like environmental education in the local schools?

When snow falls from the sky, it goes directly into the Harbor. Let's follow Nature's lead.


Anonymous said...

The snow disposal restriction is primarily driven by two concerns: large trash and feces. It limits snow disposal to areas with at least 50 ft of vegetation between snow storage and the ocean, plus a cleanable surface. The large stuff ranges from shopping carts to hub caps. It's easy to remove when the snow melts, but all mixed in and impractical to separate in the winter. The feces is a natural component of all urban runoff. Simple treatment will do, like the vegetative barrier, but the regulations do prohibit direct disposal.

The other chemicals end up in the ocean as you point out. The regulatory concern is keeping the concentration low. Alaskan regulations use presence of an oil sheen as the forbidden concentration limit for oil. Tests showed oil sheens from direct dumping. So the rule just slows down the process to allow greater dilution.

I recall this issue from back then, and thanks to google dug out the more recent Alaskan analysis.

Anonymous said...

My city of Annapolis apparently shares your logic - a recent newspaper photo shows a dump truck emptying snow directly into the water from City Dock - which goes past the Naval Academy and into the beleaguered Chesapeake Bay. But, as you say, it would have melted, run down the hill from the State House and ended up exactly in the same place.
Frankly, I have always had the same question about cleaning up after my dog. I do it for courtesy, but it goes into a PLASTIC bag and to the landfill, where the plastic contaminates the environment and the poop eventually goes out into the groundwater. Meanwhile, the large herds of deer in the area have no poop bags but it's politically incorrect to thin them.....go figure.


Paul Levy said...

Sorry, but I am not persuaded. I remember watching a particular suburban community creating huge mounds of snow on an asphalt pad that drained into one of its wetland areas. How can that be environmentally sound?

And what about all those air emissions?

If you are concerned about hubcaps and such, create a pontoon barrier in the part of the Harbor where the disposal takes place.

Finally, of course, at what financial cost does this environmental "protection" take place, when cities and towns are strapped for cash? What public health and safety functions are not being funded to satisfy a purest view of the world.

Joe said...

From Facebook:

Absolutement...when I lived in Manhattan that's exactly what happened...into the Hudson or the East River...common sense does not prevail.

Brian said...

From Facebook:

Probably too much bureaucracy to allow it to happen. We should just take that snow and throw it in ourselves. Boston Snow Party!

Amy said...

From Facebook:

I got a ticket on Brattle Street yesterday for parking too far out into the road. If the snow weren't piled 5' into said road, I wouldn't have had to park that way. They should have 'No Parking' signs up, they know it's a problem.

The irony was the 'meter maid' left the ticket on the passenger side, because she couldn't get to the driver's side. I guess, it's my contribution to the Cambridge emergency snow removal fund. I won't be back 'til spring.

Why can't they just dump it in/on the river?

Anonymous said...

Air emissions are a function of distance trucking the snow, not whether it's disposed of in the ocean. Boston has few open areas close by, so it affects them. But it's unlikely a factor for the suburban site.

Today, I would look for a permeable paving like RAP, but a paved area near wetlands is a good choice. The chemical effects are limited. Soil and vegetation are good buffers. The pavement is easy to clear of trash and sand. The water goes into recharge and wetlands instead of rapid runoff.

I'm not sure how pontoons would help. Trash and sand make a poor construction fill, and it's unlikely that the convenient dump sites happen to be sites intended for filling. So you will have to dredge out the trash and sand to restore the harbor. That costs money too.

Given the many questionable practices of various DPWs I agree that current practice is probably not the cheapest way to deal with these problems. Most open fields will do for disposal. You just need somewhere that it's OK for trucks to drive.

Supermark said...

I'm no scientist, but what if we just threw big solar pool covers on top of the really big piles? Lansdowne Street has at least half a dozen huge piles, well over 6 feet tall. If these tarps can heat pool water using sunlight, my guess is that they'd make short work of some piles of ice and snow.

Engineer on Medicare said...

I sure you realize that EPA rules are not always founded on rational science, engineering, or economics. Someone probably determined that it would not be good to dump snow from roadways into Walden Pond or a trout stream, and made a rule that it couldn't be dumped into a water body. Never mind that the ocean is already 3.5% salt.

So we see the outrageous alternative of burning 100 gallons of #2 fuel oil to melt a truckload of snow so it can drain into a storm sewer.

Tom said...

From Facebook:

I say dump the snow in the rivers and harbors and when DEP or EPA shows up and orders the cities to stop the police should arrest them for posing a threat to public safety..Do that three or four times and the DEP and EPA will get the message...Enough catering to the absurd....

Cheryl said...

From Facebook:

We may not have a choice by the next storm - this Wednesday!

Jon Garfunkel said...

What a fine opportunity for a well-known public administrator to investigate matters of public policy! I hope you report your findings to the Globe since they linked to your question.

First of all, your truck-miles math is a bit short. There may be a lot of coastline in Massachusetts, but hauling it to a place within town will invariably be shorter. Why go to the harbor if there is a designated "snow farm" within South Boston? (And consider even that dense cities like Cambridge, Somerville, Malden aren't even on the harbor).

And you are probably familiar with the environmental necessity of the 9.5-mile effluent tunnel? Why have the tunnel at all? Obviously, it was designed to diffuse the waste. Contrast that with hundreds of trucks dumping into a handful of docks around Boston Harbor.

Now I wouldn't be surprised if that was the practice earlier in the twentieth century, and at some point the practice was obviously curtailed.

Anonymous said...


It's state regulations in this case. If this were only Massachusetts I would agree it's just irrationality. But Alaska also has these regulations. The Alaskans are more sensible about such things, but also very protective of their fish and harbors. The concern is not salt. The concern in Alaska is primarily trash and oil. MA was also concerned about feces and other street mess.

On the other hand, Alaskans are more practical and have more open space. They just set aside some fields for snow from their much smaller high density downtown areas.

Anonymous said...

Tom's comment (8:49 pm above) makes excellent sense in arresting the EPA & DEP agents for threats to public safety.
Just which is more important to EPA et al..their rules/laws or a human life if a firetruck or ambulance cannot reach someone in time to help them?
These are extenuating circumstances and the restriction should be waived.

Peter in South Boston said...

I'm a recent newcomer to South Boston and happen to live adjacent to the "snow farm" mentioned above.

For days now, I've been watching (and listening to!) scores of humongous Volvo trucks depositing snow in mountains across the street; immediately adjacent to the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal channel!

The cost of the trucks and hired shovels that seem to work 24/7 to dump and then later move (???) the recently dumped mountains of snow boggle the financial mind...

I'm with Paul. This is insanity.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, has anyone presented any concrete evidence that the cost to truck the snow to the harbor is any less than the cost to truck it to one of the 6 snow farms around the city? The whole premise of this argument is that it's cheaper as if the snow just magically jumps into the harbor for free

wenzday said...

Who is in charge of this regulation? Which agency can I call and / or write to to tell them my views?
I had a plan to shovel snow into a pedal-powered pickup truck and bring it down to the river -then found out it is illegal? but the storm drain in my lot drains into this same river?! does not make sense.
Anyone know who I should call?

Paul Levy said...

The MA Department of Environmental Protection.

ziggy703 said...

Follow the money; who gets paid to truck snow to the 'burbs?
Brookline had a good system in the 1970's. Put the snow right in a truck that melted it, dumped it into nearby drains. Harvard St and sidewalks looked good.

Peter in South Boston said...

Relative to Anonymous's question re: concrete evidence that snow farms cost more than simply dumping snow in the harbor/channel.

I'd be inclined to base my financial argument on the incremental amount of "management" that needs to take place to "manage the snow on land" (i.e. at the snow farms).

In my personal observations, there have been multiple shovels (and sometimes, trucks), working day after day, 24 hours a day, at moving recently dumped snow into bigger mountains, new locations, etc.

Guess we could start by doing the math of the cost of this incremental "moving" service x the number of hours x the number of days x 6 farms in Boston.

Based upon my personal observation of one snow farm site, this is not chump change...

Anonymous said...

Pete from Southie

Sure there would be some savings there for what's trucked to Black Falcon, but you miss my point. basically that the original post is misleading. It implies that 1000's of gallons of fuel would be saved by dumping snow in the harbor. I still haven't seen anything to substantiate that. Sure, you've identified one farm that is located next to the harbor where you could eliminate some overhead. What about the snow in say, JP? Should we truck that to the harbor or to a farm in JP?

Thing is, I really don't know what I'm talking about with any of this. For all I know there could be no environmental impact for dumping snow in the harbor. Unfortunately, no one on this thread, including Mr Levy, has offered any hard evidence that they have any more of a clue than I do. Which really isn’t saying a lot. People love to jump on anything that suggests money is being wasted, whether there is any real data behind it. Why hasn’t Mr. Levy offered up the $ figures for what it costs to truck the snow and manage the farms vs. his new proposal to truck it to and dump it in the harbor?

Peter in South Boston said...

Thanks, Anonymous,

Agree with your point, and guess the onus is on Dr. Levy to provide some additional data here in support of his proposal.

But given that Dr. Levy "approves" these discussion points, kudos to him for at least allowing us to have this critical conversation.

Dr. Levy: ball's in your court!

Paul Levy said...

Thanks for commenting. First, I am not a doctor. Second, data? How would I, a mere citizen, have data on this?

Let's just think about it common-sensically. If you cart snow to a landside location, you are compelled to keep moving it around and such to make room for the next batch. If you push it in the ocean, it is gone.

I'm not saying all of the snow needs to be transhipped to the Harbor. If there is a closer location landside, fine. But there are an awful lot of city streets that are within blocks of the Harbor. Think of downtown Boston, the North End, Beacon Hill, and East Boston. Go further and think about Revere, Chelsea, Lynn, Swampscott, Marblehead -- to move up the coast. Consider Quincy, Braintree, Hull, Weymouth -- to move down the coast. Even if you just dumped THAT snow in the ocean, you would save miles of transport costs.

But why do you want to shift the burden of proof to me, a private citizen? Shouldn't the state DEP have to prove that its regulations are both environmentally necessary and cost-effective?

By the way, enjoy today's expected 21 additional inches of nice, clean white stuff!

Sarah-the-Yente said...

Apparently in Minneapolis they have a "Snow Dragon" that can burn 30 tons of snow in an hour and filter out all the gunk and run-off. The melted snow then gets dumped in rivers or lakes. I think we need one of those in Boston!

Peter in South Boston said...

Points well taken, Paul.

Perhaps someone knows an official of the MA Dept of Environmental Protection who might be encouraged to comment here?

Or perhaps someone at The Globe could be encouraged to pursue this "discussion?"

PCL said...

Thank you, Mr. Levy, for raising this issue. For years, I've thought the ban on harbor snow dumping made no sense. Environmentally, any pollution that can be considered a bad thing in the harbor should be considered even worse in ground water (which is used for drinking water in some areas). Salt, which is normal in sea water, can ruin drinking water, compromising the health of those depending on it. Also, how much flooding occurs un-necessarily around these snow farms due to excessive snow melt? Sure, there are areas where farming the snow still makes sense, given varying distances from the ocean. It would also be worth considering sifting what gets dumped, to remove large objects. But the harbor should be an option when it helps minimize costs, the burning of fuel as well as groundwater contamination.