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After 30 years, court marks Boston harbor cleanup

More than 60 swimmers, including Olympians Carlton Bruner, Janel Jorgensen McArdle, Kristy Kowal, and Heather Petri, jumped into Boston Harbor to kick off a 22-mile relay swim around the Boston Harbor Islands in July. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

The oldest active case in the federal court system in Massachusetts is coming to an end, and it seems all parties are celebrating — the plaintiff, the defendant, even the judge.

US District Judge Richard G. Stearns last month issued the 239th compliance order in the 1985 lawsuit that led to the Boston Harbor cleanup project, declaring an end to the construction phase of the massive combined sewer overflow project.

Stearns issued the order after a presentation in March by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority — which was created as a result of the lawsuit — showed how three decades of litigation since have transformed the harbor into one of the country’s cleanest with people boating, kayaking, and swimming in its waters again. With the project completed, all that remains is a mandated three-year post-construction monitoring program.


“The court repeats its congratulations,” the judge said in the five-page compliance order last month, saying that the MWRA presentation highlighted “the magnitude of this multi-decade achievement.”

The presentation turned into a celebration with environmental protection attorneys and construction contractors, sewer and water system operators, and government lawyers all saluting the cleanup of the harbor and the Charles River — and an end to the 31 years of litigation.

“It’s a little intimidating, going into a federal court, so people were restrained, but as we finished it was a party in a federal courtroom,” said Frederick A. Laskey, the MWRA’s executive director, who gave the presentation. “It was very rewarding.”

The litigation dates back to a time in the 1980s, when Boston was known nationally for its dirty water, and public health officials warned that anyone who fell into the Charles River or Boston Harbor should go to a hospital to be checked.

Following the merger of several cases in 1985 — in which the Environmental Protection Agency was alternately a defendant and a plaintiff — the Conservation Law Foundation of New England became a lead plaintiff.


The EPA, which initially had been blamed for failing to enforce environmental regulations, allowing the pollution to occur, then took a leading role in demanding cleanup efforts. The Metropolitan District Commission, which used to run sewer operations for Greater Boston, became the lead defendant.

What followed was a series of federal judicial orders mandating a timeline for the completion of cleanup projects, first set by A. David Mazzone, the initial judge to oversee the case, and later by Stearns, who took over just before Mazzone died.

Both judges were recognized for their hands-on oversight of the case, holding the MWRA to its deadlines, and at times even visiting construction sites to observe the progress.

“It wouldn’t have happened without the federal court,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation.

First, the MWRA was created in 1985 as an independent entity separate from state government, with its own budget and revenue stream from sewer and water rates — a way to address the years of underfunding for the system.

Then came the construction of the sprawling $3.7 billion Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant to replace a failing facility that was releasing more than 70 tons of raw sludge into the harbor each day.

Over the past decade, the MWRA embarked on the $900 million combined sewer overflow project, to replace a regional system that combined sewage with storm-water runoff. That system was overwhelmed at times, such as during thunderstorms, when it sometimes released as much as 350,000 gallons of untreated sewage into the harbor, which would flow up on beaches in Dorchester and South Boston.


“The beach [would be] closed for days,” said Laskey, who said the MWRA completed 35 construction projects, with more than 80 contracts, to replace 100 miles of storm drains and sewerage pipes. Officials from Cambridge to Chelsea and Somerville were involved.

Competitors took part in a sailing festival on the harbor in August 2015.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

“We have basically rebuilt a large part of the sewer system in [Greater] Boston,” he said.

Laskey said the construction of the sewage treatment plant was necessary for the overall health of the harbor, but the combined sewer overflow project was what made people want to return to beaches and boating docks. It is the reason the Seaport District – where the federal courthouse is located — is thriving.

“This is where people touch the water,” he said.

Those involved — lawyers, contractors, engineers, the judge — also had to coordinate secondary projects, Shelley said, such as the best ways to compost the sludge from Deer Island.

Also, environmental inspectors determined that not all of the pollution on the harbor’s shores came from the combined sewer overflow pipes: Some property owners in Boston had illegal sewer hookups that sent raw sewage directly into the harbor through storm drains.

“There were a lot of secondary challenges,” Shelley said. “At the time, I don’t think anyone had full knowledge of how badly the system had fallen. . . . We had no sense of how big of a mountain we were looking at in terms of the challenges, and no one understood it was going to be a $4 billion project at the end of the day.”


Shelley was at Laskey’s court presentation in March, celebrating with fellow lawyers, engineers, and contractors. The Conservation Law Foundation, as the lead plaintiff, could have legally responded to the presentation before Stearns’ July order officially declaring the construction phase complete. But it did not.

Instead, Shelley wrote a letter to the judge praising those involved, including the court.

“We think the rehabilitation of this system is now complete,” Shelley said in an interview this week, “and the focus now needs to be on the recognition of the importance of continuing investments in the system, so that history is never repeated.”

Milton Valencia can be reached at MValencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.