BOSTON Harbor - the dirtiest harbor in the land - became a national political and environmental symbol last summer when candidate George Bush came to town to step along the grimy, litter-washed shoreline of Gov. Michael Dukakis's capital city. But few of the national reporters flying out over Boston Harbor from Logan Airport later that day, noticed, or wrote about, the activity below them on a small island off the town of Winthrop. Deer Island is the main construction site for the Boston Harbor cleanup - the biggest public-works project in New England history.
Expected to cost $7 billion over the next 10 years, the cleanup is the outcome of years of court orders, environmental studies, and New England political consensus building combined with shrewd Yankee trading over how and where the project would to be located.
From the Pilgrims through the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s to the present, the harbor has been a huge watery wastebasket. Today, 480 million gallons of raw sewage are pumped into it every day. Much of that waste is toxic and separated only into solid and liquid waste to break down the bacteria.
The cleanup involves building two treatment plants on Deer Island that will release purified water out a massive tunnel 300 feet below the ocean floor and extending nine miles into the Atlantic. It will be the biggest tunnel of its kind in the world.
Already, in spite of the national image of the harbor and the fact that many Bostonians don't know specifics (``I just know the water is dirty and they want to clean it,'' says a local waiter), the pollution is being stanched.
``The work started three or four years ago, and the process is well under way - despite what you may have seen on TV commercials,'' says Paul Levy, who as head of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) is in charge of the project. ``Year by year now the harbor is going to get cleaner.''
Last December the MWRA introduced equipment that eliminates the 6,000 gallons of ``scum,'' or floating waste, that used to be pumped into the harbor daily - resulting in a coastline that will soon be free of debris.
By 1991 the 70 (dry) tons of solid-waste sludge now dumped into the bay each day will be collected, barged across the harbor to Quincy, and made into fertilizer. By '95 the primary-treatment plant will be in operation; the secondary plant by '99. MWRA plant inspectors, increased from 25 to 85 in a year, are handing out stiffer penalties to companies that dump toxic chemicals into metropolitan Boston's sewers. Fines of $682,000 and $212,000 have been issued.
The cleanup is a result of the Clean Water Act of 1977, plus a federal judge's orders in the mid-'80s. It will bring the highest water fees - $1,200 a family by 1999 - in the United States.
Problems include the fact that no one knows how to clean the harbor bottom with its toxin-loaded sediments. ``We're hoping nature does the cleaning,'' Dr. Levy says. There are technical questions, such as whether sea water will seep into the tunnel through the about 80 three-foot diameter pipes releasing effluent nine miles out.
Local politics has also been a major factor in the project with construction, design, siting, storage, the environment, and jobs all playing off one another. Most communities don't want a sewage-treatment plant; most do want a cut of the federal and state cleanup funds. After months of negotiation, Winthrop accepted the treatment plants, provided the prison on Deer Island was relocated. The town of Walpole, the proposed site of a sludge landfill, offered to allow expansion of the state prison there, if the landfill went elsewhere.
The MWRA purchased the former General Dynamics shipyard in Quincy for the fertilizer plant and other operations, meaning the loss of a potential tax base for the town. Quincy got a compensatory $3 million a year through ``the politics of delay'' - the MWRA realized the costs of a court battle and delayed construction would be prohibitive.
``The days when you could shove public works down people's throats are over,'' says state Sen. William Golden, who represents Quincy. ``You've got to have integrity and provide incentives as well as be cost-effective.''
State officials note with irony that the White House proposes cutting harbor-cleanup funds in half, from $2.4 billion to $1.2 billion - and to eliminate all $59 million earmarked for Boston.