MWRA NEWS RELEASE Archive
Massachusetts Water Resources Authority
September 6, 2000
Flora and fauna of Boston Harbor will breathe easier soon because dissolved oxygen levels will climb as Greater Bostons wastewater utility, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), ends daily discharges of hundreds of million of gallons of treated wastewater to the harbors shallow waters. In recent years MWRA has completed new sewage treatment plant construction to achieve secondary treatment. Now a new outfall, discharging treated effluent to deep waters outside the harbor, caps the projects environmental gains. The new outfall diffuser is 6,600-feet long and is made up of hundreds of small individual discharge ports to assure effective dispersal and dilution of the wastewater stream.
Effluent reaches the deep water outfall diffuser through a 25-foot diameter tunnel constructed in bedrock deep under Massachusetts Bay to a point 9.5 miles east of the new Deer Island Treatment Plant. The in-service date for the tunnel, with a maximum capacity of 1.27 billion gallons per day, is September 6, 2000. The tunnel and outfall construction has taken almost ten years and cost $390 million, more than 10% of the entire $3.8 billion cost of MWRAs Boston Harbor Project.
An extraordinary interdisciplinary scientific effort, gathering momentum since 1987, has been associated with the tunnel and outfall project. Data collection, monitoring, research and modeling has been performed to predict the new impact on Massachusetts Bay from discharges at the new outfall site. Studies have also examined the likely benefits from the new outfall not only to Boston Harbor but also to the reaches of Massachusetts Bay now affected by tidal currents influenced by Harbor waters. The Harbor receives flow from several rivers including the Charles, Mystic and Neponset, and is the largest estuary of Massachusetts Bay.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency included provisions requiring extensive scientific monitoring of the outfall effects in MWRAs discharge permit to assure protection of important natural resources in the Bay. Stellwagen Bank, a National Marine Sanctuary, is 16.4 miles from the discharge site. Areas in eastern Cape Cod Bay are feeding grounds of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
MWRAs science program investment of over $20 million has supported teams of researchers from virtually all marine science disciplines. Findings have been pooled and shared in quest of an integrated picture of the harbor and Bay ecosystems.
Dr. Andrea Rex, a microbiologist who directs marine ecology research and study efforts at MWRA, states: "The science program prompted by the outfall project has created unique research opportunities and led to important scientific and public policy results. Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor have become one of the best-studied and best-understood marine environments in the world. Fish veterinarians, plankton biologists, physical oceanographers and benthic ecologists, just to name a few, have shared their insights not only for the benefit of basic science, but to assure that critical environmental policy questions have been soundly addressed. Not only MWRAs customers and ratepayers, but U.S. EPA and the National Marine Fisheries Service, have benefited from these efforts."
Examples of scientific findings that addressed issues critical to understanding potential impacts of the outfall:
Scientific investigation also has documented many environmental gains to Boston Harbor from the improvements to effluent quality as the new pumping, primary treatment and secondary treatment facility have come on line over the course of recent years. Studies over time have shown dramatic decline in the incidence of liver tumors in flounder. Successional patterns in benthic communities are being tracked by ecologists who are noting changes from pollution tolerant capitellid polychaetes to tube-building amphipods, which in turn appear to be in the process of being replaced by more diverse, healthy communities. Mussels placed near the old harbor outfalls are accumulating lower levels of organic pollutants. Some investigators predict that seagrass beds may return to wide areas of the once-polluted harbor, providing more natural complexity to the ecosystem.
Years of baseline data gathering in the Harbor and the Bay will now provide a platform for future observation of marine conditions. Oversight of scientific inquiry and interpretation is vested in an eight-person Outfall Monitoring Scientific Advisory Panel chartered to report to U.S. EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The future challenge will be to refine the understandings of anthropogenic and natural effects on this complicated marine ecosystem and to relate them to future policy-making so that long-term protection of the marine environment can be assured.
The scientists participating in outfall study programs have come from numerous disciplines and organizations. Dr. Michael Bothner (United States Geological Survey, Woods Hole, MA), project leader for a cooperative USGS-MWRA research program on fate and transport of contaminants says, " USGS work in Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay is a good example of how our agency applies science with a regional and multidisciplinary scope to address important environmental questions in the coastal ecosystem."
A full list of organizations and institutions involved in the scientific efforts around the outfall project includes: