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.