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Boston Harbor Cleanup Strains Local Resources

Residents pay highest US water, sewer rates to foot bill

FUNDING the cleanup of Boston Harbor - often called the nation's dirtiest port - is becoming as messy as the removal of dirt, scum, and sludge from the waterway itself.

Ever since work began in 1989 on the $6 billion project that will revamp the region's aging sewage and water system, federal officials, Massachusetts lawmakers, and community leaders have battled over who will foot the bill. But with limited state and federal assistance for the project, thus far, it is Bay State homeowners who are ending up paying the cost.

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Boston-area residents pay the nation's highest water and sewer rates, with a typical family of four paying $590 annually. By 1999, the rate is expected to climb to some $1,300 per household.

Massachusetts lawmakers and congressmen say enough is enough.

On March 9 and 10, 35 state legislators met in Washington with congressmen, including House Speaker Thomas Foley (D), to make a case for more federal money.

Bay State lawmakers say high rates have deterred businesses from locating in the area, and residents have had to make painful choices.

"I had a telephone call from one woman who was literally crying to me that she couldn't pay the water and sewer bill and she didn't know what to do, whether to provide food for her family or pay the water and sewer bill," says Massachusetts state Rep. Robert DeLeo (D). "It's at the point where people are making decisions about the necessities of life."

Earlier in March, Massachusetts congressmen met with US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Carol Browner and budget director Leon Panetta to try to resolve the issue. Jim McGovern, press secretary for US Rep. Joseph Moakley (D) of Massachusetts, said nothing definite came from the meeting.

"The general feeling in the meeting was that we will work something out," Mr. McGovern says. "They talked about things like trying to set up some generic fund to deal with situations like Boston Harbor, and there was also talk about other alternatives."

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The project, considered the largest public works project ever undertaken in New England, includes new primary and secondary treatment plants, two undersea tunnels stretching a total of 14 miles, and a sludge processing plant. The cleanup is being carried out as part of a 1986 court order, after waste-water discharges to Boston Harbor were found to be in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

So far, the project has only received about $53 million in state grants. Paul Keough, acting New England regional administrator for the EPA, says increased state funding must accompany federal assistance. His plan calls for the state to pay up to $90 million for the project by 1996. "The state assistance is critical in driving down rates immediately," he says.

Federal funds were more forthcoming during the Bush administration. Due to the clout of the state's congressional delegation and President Bush, the harbor cleanup has been authorized to receive some $359,000 in federal money. Those funds may be seen as a political payback from Mr. Bush, who cruised across the waterway during the 1988 presidential campaign and criticized his rival at the time, Bay State Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), for neglecting what he called "the harbor of shame."

But with the new administration, it is not clear how soon more federal funds will come.

Shortly after President Clinton's election, his aides reportedly pledged federal funds of up to 50 percent of the project's cost, says Robert Ciolek, a board member of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the state agency which oversees the cleanup. And even though that proposal no longer seems likely at the moment, the federal government must step in to take on more responsibility, he says.

"It's foolish to think that the 2.5 million people [in the region] have the wherewithal to pull $5 billion from their wallets to pay for a federal mandate, which is exactly the situation we are in," Mr. Ciolek says.

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