Political Waters: The Long, Dirty, Contentious, Incredibly Expensive but Eventually Triumphant History of Boston Harbor -- A Unique Environmental Success Story, By Eric Jay Dolin, University of Massachusetts, 240 pp., illustrated, $34.95
Whatever surprises the present campaign may bring, it is pretty certain that George W. Bush will not make the state of Boston Harbor an issue, as his father, George H. W. Bush, famously (or infamously) did during a campaign boat tour 16 years ago this month.
With the groundbreaking for a new treatment plant at Deer Island, the cleanup had actually begun to move "from concept to reality" just a few weeks before Bush staged his bit of political theater, as Eric Jay Dolin notes in his most welcome history of the Boston Harbor Project.
But the attack struck home, with the Bush campaign's sneering response that it had taken then-Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate, "11 years to clean up his own harbor."
In "Political Waters," Dolin, an environmental consultant and writer who lives in Marblehead, explores the legal and political maneuverings in that "long, dirty, contentious, incredibly expensive" project, as the subtitle aptly puts it.
The story is generally known, but Dolin, with a clear eye for the unreliable assertions and unfounded conclusions of the various players, provides a lasting contribution to the historical record.
The deteriorating condition of Boston Harbor, all too evident by the 1930s, led to construction of treatment plants at Deer and Nut islands. But, writes Dolin, they were inadequate and soon outdated. Raw sewage, swelled by storm runoff, continued to flow into the harbor.
Passage of the Federal Clear Water Act in 1972, requiring a higher, secondary level of treatment, should have been the catalyst for action, but 16 years were to pass before that groundbreaking derided by the Bush campaign in 1988.
Why the delays? Dolin provides two answers, one attitudinal, one political.
First, there was no constituency. A Boston Harbor Association conference in 1975 was titled "Boston Harbor . . . Who Cares?" "Unfortunately," writes Dolin, "the answer was, not many people."
Then, a 1977 amendment to the Clean Water Act "presented the MDC with the opportunity" for delay by applying for a waiver from the secondary treatment requirement that would allow discharge into the ocean rather than into the harbor. The fight dragged on for a decade, with a reasonable argument being made that separating the combined sanitary and storm sewers -- the CSOs -- would solve much of the problem by reducing the volume of waste water that had to be treated.
Dolin writes, "The MDC planned for both the possibility of getting a waiver and [of] being denied, and, as long as the waiver decision was pending, planning continued to be a substitute for action."
The question remains contentious as to whether the waiver fight contributed to the ultimate $3.8 billion cost of the Boston Harbor Project, because federal construction funds that were available in 1977 had dried up by 1988. Dolin finds the argument "probably wrong . . . or at least exaggerated" because, with the Boston Harbor Project on hold, those funds were available for "other equally deserving sewage projects in Massachusetts."
Dolin regards the history of the Boston Harbor cleanup as "eventually triumphant," with the emphasis on the "eventually," for as news stories this summer indicated, the CSOs remain a problem, and a 2.1-mile tunnel is to be built near the Dorchester-South Boston shoreline to contain storm runoff, which now forces the closing of South Boston beaches as many as one out of every five days during the summer.
And that "eventually" revives the question of just how clean the harbor has to be? That question, Dolin writes, "has been at the core of every important controversy about the environment and pollution, and [is] phenomenally difficult to answer."
It was a key question when the cleanup issue came before the courts in the early 1980s and it remains a question today, even with some 390 million gallons of sewage now being treated at Deer Island each day (barely 30 percent of daily capacity) and other news stories of the past summer reporting the revival of fishing in the once-polluted waters off Dorchester's Columbia Point.
"To some," Dolin answers, "the harbor is much cleaner than it has to be," while for those who believe "there is always more we can and should do," the answer to how clean? "never comes."