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Sewer infrastructure: an orphan of our times.

The controversy surrounding the siting and use of the 9.6-mile effluent-outfall tunnel from the Boston Harbor Cleanup project is but one chapter in the continuing saga facing the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) as it seeks to repair, rebuild, and upgrade the sewer system serving the Boston metropolitan area. Many people on Cape Cod are averse to the placement of this pipe, fearing negative effects on local water quality. Not surprisingly, the issues they have raised and the political forces they have brought to bear on the MWRA concerning this issue are typical of those the agency has faced on a variety of projects. These battles are inevitable for a public agency involved in building infrastructure projects. A case study of the Boston metropolitan area sewer system illustrates this point.

History Describes a Casual (and Dangerous) Approach

Massachusetts is typical of many states and countries, in that the major sewer systems serving its urban areas were conceived, designed, and constructed in the late l800s and early 1900s. Public health and safety were usually the impetus for these systems. For example, before Boston had a comprehensive sewer system, there was a less-disciplined approach to wastewater handling. Looking back to the late 1700s and early 1800s, the historian Eliot Clarke observed:

The way in which sewers were built at this time was, apparently, this. When some energetic householder on any street decided that a sewer was needed there, he persuaded such of his neighbors as he could to join him in building a street drain. Having obtained permission to open the street or perhaps neglected this preliminary, they built such a structure as they thought necessary, on the shortest line to tide-water.... |By the 1820s~ such changes have taken place in the contours of the city, through operations for reclaiming and filling tidal areas bordering the old limits, that, from being an easy site to sewer, Boston became one presenting many obstacles to the construction of an efficient sewer system....

As a consequence, the contents of the sewers were dammed back by the tide during the greater part of each twelve hours. To prevent the salt water flowing into them, many of them were provided with tide-gates, which closed as the sea rose, and excluded it. These tide-gates also shut in the sewage, which accumulated behind them along the whole length of the sewer, as in a cesspool; and, there being no current, deposits occurred. The sewers were, in general, inadequately ventilated, and the rise of sewage in them compressed the foul air which they contained and tended to force it into the house connections....

Although at about the time of low water the tide-gates opened and the sewage escaped, the latter almost immediately met the incoming tide, and was brought back by it, to form deposits upon the flats and shores about the city.... Under certain conditions of the atmosphere, especially on summer evenings, a well-defined sewage odor would extend over the whole South and West Ends of the city proper.

It was not just the odor of sewage that was a problem. The growing metropolitan area faced epidemics of cholera and typhoid during the late 1800s. Ironically, this corresponded with the increases in public water supplies that came from water-system expansions in the mid to late 1800s that were not accompanied by adequate systems for disposal of the water once it was used. A series of reports documenting the problem was issued by several towns in the metropolitan area. Along the Mystic River, for example, the Stoneham Board of Health, in a report dated February 29, 1884, noted:

Owing to the introduction and greatly increased use of water, the question of drainage is brought to your attention with redoubled force. A system of drainage for thickly settled portions of the town will soon be a necessity. The sanitary condition of some localities is such as to excite apprehension, if not alarm, and although we have escaped any serious amount of disease proceeding from these causes, we cannot expect further exemption unless these causes are removed.

Later that year, the Massachusetts Drainage Commission discussed the situation along the Charles River in Dedham, noting:

One marked case of nuisance and pollution exists within the village proper. This is ca used by sewage from the county jail, which is discharged into a brook passing through swampy land a few hundred feet distant. This makes a bad stink at times, and it is reported that during the past year several cases of typhoid fever have occurred in its vicinity.

The condition of Waltham's drainage system was described as follows:

After being used and fouled the water is put back into the ground through cesspools and privy vaults. That this disposal of it may in some cases be a source of danger is realized by many persons in the city.

In 1883 the Board of Health said, "No well water in the village can longer be used with safety."

The Drainage Commission report was one of a series of efforts in which the metropolitan area's problems were reviewed. It concluded that a major sanitary engineering project was needed. Confronting the difficulty of this task, the Drainage Commission noted:

Human excrement, from its nature and consistency, is more difficult to handle |than solid waste~, and it has been found that the easiest method of getting rid of it expeditiously, before it begins to decompose (that is within 24 hours), is to wash it away through pipes by the aid of flowing water.... By this method, called sewerage, it is easy to move the water and its contained filth away from the houses where it originates. It is not at all easy, however, to find places to put it where it can do no harm.... It is almost impossible to find places where crude sewage can be continuously emptied without doing harm.

After reviewing the various technologies available for handling wastewater, the Drainage Commission concluded:

To sum up, we are of opinion, upon the whole--

1st. That when it can be done unobjectionably, it is best to throw sewage into great quantities of free water.

2d. That filtration on land, either alone or in combination with one or more of the other processes, ranks next.

3d. That when irrigation is especially favored by circumstances, it is better than either of the preceding; but that it is so seldom that these circumstances can be controlled to advantage, that we assign to it a third place only in practical usefulness.

4th. That precipitation and chemical treatment may be advisable in connection with either of the first, second or third of these devices, but in our present state of knowledge ought not to be preferred to either of them.

These and other recommendations resulted in the construction of a massive collection and transport system, the forerunner of the very system in place today. Its purpose was simple: To take wastewater away from Boston and the communities along the Charles and Mystic rivers out to where it would do no immediate harm, to Boston Harbor. It began with the completion of the Boston Main Drainage System, consisting of tunnels, interceptors, pumping facilities, and storage tanks on Moon Island, from which sewage and industrial waste collected from the city environs were discharged into the harbor on outgoing tides. It was expanded in 1894 to include the North Metropolitan Sewage System, which collected sewage from communities generally to the north of the Charles River and sent it to be discharged off of Deer Island, and in 1904, to include the South Metropolitan Sewage System, which did the same for the communities south of Boston, discharging off of Nut Island in Quincy.

The Metropolitan Sewage Commission was created on June 7, 1889, to design and build this new drainage system. On March 20, 1901, it merged with the Metropolitan Water Board to become the Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Board. In 1919 the Board's responsibilities were transferred to the new Metropolitan District Commission (MDC). As one of the first examples of regional government in the US, MDC was charged with a variety of interrelated concerns: flood control, sewage collection and transport, water supply, parks, and recreation. For years it managed these responsibilities with exemplary competence.

But while MDC had a noble history in helping to create regional wastewater systems, something happened in the body politic after about 1960 that caused these systems to be neglected. Simply put, the MDC was not given the resources necessary to maintain the waterworks and sewer system, and consequently the systems began to deteriorate.

Between 1965 and 1985, MDC spent only $11 million per year in capital improvements to the regional water and sewer systems. At this rate of spending, the $2 billion system would be replaced in about 200 years, hardly an appropriate rate for major infrastructure. A more appropriate replacement rate would have been 40 or 50 years. This would have required four or five times the MDC's annual spending. At $11 million per year, the MDC was falling behind three or four years for every year that passed. One symptom of this underspending was that the average age of the region's water and sewer pipes exceeded 80 years, and some parts of the system were 140 years old.

The Mandate and the Orphan

Under pressure from state and federal courts, in 1984 the Massachusetts legislature created MWRA to take over the sewer and water system from MDC. It was given a legislative mandate to upgrade and maintain the system, and the power, as an independent authority, to raise water and sewer rates to pay for the necessary repairs. The new authority began its formal existence on July 1, 1985, facing a job of massive proportions. Here are some of the "minor" projects that were waiting on the "wastewater" side of the ledger in 1985.

* Build a new 120-million-gallon-per-day (mgd) sewage pumping station to replace East Boston's 1898-vintage, steam-driven pumping station ($43.9 million).

* Build a new 93-mgd Charlestown pumping station to replace the existing circa-1895 facility ($23.2 million).

* Build combined sewer-overflow screening and chlorination facilities in Dorchester, Somerville, and East Boston ($14.4 million).

* Build a 22.5-kilometer relief sewer system from Dedham to Framingham to stop sewage overflows into the Charles River ($100 million).

* Build an 11-kilometer relief sewer system from Milton to Walpole and Stoughton to stop sewage overflows into the Neponset River ($35.8 million).

* Build relief sewer systems in Braintree and Weymouth to stop sewage overflows into streets and homes in those communities ($45.4 million).

In short, MWRA was facing an immense engineering task when it was created, just to catch up on deferred maintenance. But there was also a need to undertake new projects to bring the metropolitan area into the 21st century, not just to catch up on the last 40 years of the 20th century. The most famous of these is the Boston Harbor Cleanup project, a multibillion-dollar effort to end sewage discharges in the bay.

MWRA also faced an unusual political battle. Recall that it was created under judicial pressure because the usual executive and legislative procedures failed to maintain an infrastructure system that, at first blush, would be in everyone's best interest to maintain. After all, a metropolitan area cannot function properly without a well-maintained sewer system. But the body politic had failed to do its job. According to Bill Geary, MDC Commissioner from 1983 to 1989, it was always possible for him to get legislative appropriations for swimming pools or skating rinks that were not really necessary, but it was virtually impossible to get appropriations for the "invisible" underground infrastructure that was essential to the region's health and well-being.

MWRA then, was created as an "orphan." The legislature knew that the new entity needed broad powers to carry out its statutory mandate. Among other things, it required eminent domain powers to create sewer rights-of-way through private property, and independent rate-setting powers to secure the revenue bonds for capitalizing new investments. It was an orphan, though, because no political figure wanted to take responsibility for its creation or actions. To do so would be to admit the failure of the previous decades, and to take the blame for new siting decisions and higher sewer rates. Both areas were ripe for controversy.

Delving into the Unknown: Siting, and Construction

Infrastructure is real. It takes up space. It has to be put somewhere. Its construction is disruptive. Many people do not want it in their neighborhood, even though it is essential to their neighborhood's existence.

Like other states, Massachusetts has a detailed environmental review process that public agencies seeking to construct infrastructure must follow. The process is designed to publicize the project and solicit public input. Much has been written over the past few years about facility siting, but it remains a difficult area of public policy. Traditionally, public agencies view the environmental review process as something they are required to go through, Likewise, local citizens groups often view the process as a means for blocking a project.

MWRA's philosophy was that the environmental review process was a key part of important two-way communication. It would help educate the public about the need for new facilities, and, equally important, it would familiarize the agency staff with the types of measures that could mitigate the construction's impact upon the host community. Of course, things did not always work out according to this approach, and there were many instances of intense local opposition to siting decisions. In some of these cases, the agency could only proceed after extensive court proceedings.

But the siting process is only a small part of the infrastructure business. After a siting decision is made, the facility must be built. Even when the siting process went smoothly, problems frequently arose during construction. Here is an example.

One MWRA project was the Wellesley relief sewer extension program: a 11-kilometer, 1.5- meter-diameter pipe designed to end sewer overflows into the Charles River. After spending decades on MDC drawing boards, this project was finally started by MWRA in 1989.

One section of the pipe had to go through a hill in Dedham. It was not a particularly long section, but much of the hill was made of rock that had to be blasted out, section by section. The broken-up rock (or "muck") then had to be hauled to the surface through the tunnel portal, which was within 60 meters of two houses, including one with a number of small children. Much of the tunnel alignment was near a residential neighborhood.

There was not much choice about how to direct this sewer line. Because of the hydraulic requirements of the sewer, it had to go through the hill, just as the previous sewer, built 40 years ago, had done. The hill was too big to dig the pipe channel from above, and the soil conditions were not right for a tunnel-boring machine. Blasting and hauling was really the only option.

Here is what went wrong. When the first pipeline was built 40 years ago, there were no houses in the area; now, there are several neighborhoods. While the MWRA staff had done a good job explaining what and when things were going to happen, through community meetings and door-to-door visits in the neighborhood, it was not enough. We learned that no matter how much we may prepare neighborhood residents for the noise and vibration associated with blasting, until the real thing starts, they really do not understand how uncomfortable the construction can be.

Pressure from residents led the town's selectmen to limit the project's hours of operation. While this eliminated dinner-time noise, it also made the job last weeks longer than we had planned. This compounded distrust in the neighborhood, because the residents now felt that they could not even believe MWRA projections about the length of a job.

Next we found that petroleum products had permeated rock in the middle of the hill. Nobody knew where they had come from. There was a theory that a nearby church's underground storage tank had leaked, but this was never proven. The state Department of Environmental Protection named MWRA a "responsible party," along with the church. (Under state law, "responsible parties" are jointly liable for hazardous waste cleanup costs.) In the meantime, responsible party or not, the agency had to dispose of contaminated tunnel muck, further slowing down the job and adding to its cost.

Shortly thereafter, a local resident complained of petroleum odors in the water from his private well. Ultimately MWRA had to pay to install a pipeline to deliver town water to the affected street.

A different kind of problem showed up in another tunnel segment of the Wellesley extension. In glacial soil, created 10,000 years ago, a mixture of sand, gravel, and small rocks allowed the contractor to use a 1.5-meter-diameter mole to drill a hole and then jack the sewer pipe in behind it. But with less than 30 meters to go after successfully drilling about 800 meters through the earth, the mole met a boulder and could not move forward. It could not move backward, either, because the sewer pipe had been jacked in behind it.

Of course, in accordance with Murphy's law, the mole was stuck about 18 meters under a residential neighborhood. More specifically, it was located 18 meters down, but less than 5 meters away from one house and not far from several others. The solution was to dig an 18-meter-deep trench about 30 meters long, retrieve the mole, and finish the pipe. Before that happened, though, there was an attempt to force grout into the ground to create necessary support for a smaller hole. The soil conditions were such that the grout did not hold, but it took many days of noisy drilling and pumping before that became evident.

This sequence of events created a major disruption in this small section of Dedham, particularly for two women who lived in a house on Commonwealth Avenue. The result was that MWRA had to purchase the home in question.

There should be one very simple lesson here: Stay away from peoples' neighborhoods. No matter how much you prepare residents for the noise, vibration, and dust associated with heavy construction, it will never be enough. When you mention noise, they imagine one heavy truck driving down their street--not the constant noise of construction punctuated by occasional explosions. There is only one problem with this lesson: When building sewer infrastructure, you cannot stay away from neighborhoods. The Massachusetts legislators knew this, and they created MWRA as an orphan to deal with the problem while keeping themselves out of the picture.

How Much Does it Cost to Catch Up?

In 1985, water and sewer ratepayers in the MWRA district paid, on average, about $140 for service. That yearly price tag is expected to reach $750 (in current dollars) by 1996 and $855 by 1998. Two-thirds of these estimated costs can be attributed to carrying out the Boston Harbor project, as determined by federal court. The remaining third is slated for those projects that have been postponed for decades and are no longer discretionary.

There used to be state and federal assistance to help pay for wastewater projects, but those days are past. Both federal and state governments have decided that these infrastructure projects should be self-supporting. There are probably good economic arguments for this, such as ensuring that people understand the full value of the services they are using, but the major impetus for this trend has been political. The state and federal governments have come to conclude that their limited financial resources should be spent on more visible programs and projects, not on the mainly underground infrastructure of the wastewater system. This provided all the more reason for the Massachusetts legislature to create an orphan to deal with the problem.

The Orphan's Tasks

Repairing and upgrading the sewer-system infrastructure are essential for the health and well-being of the residents of any metropolitan area, as well as for environmental protection. Notwithstanding these laudatory purposes, infrastructure planning and development is fraught with difficulties for a sponsoring agency. Siting decisions, construction procedures, and rate impacts all offer opportunities for political controversy. This is further complicated when elected officials simultaneously promote the generic benefits of infrastructure improvements while trying to isolate themselves as much as possible from the actual implementation of specific projects. For the foreseeable future, if these necessary improvements are to be made, independent agencies like the MWRA will continue to be forced to "take the heat" for infrastructure projects.

Acknowledgments: Historical sources quoted in this article include Eliot C. Clarke's Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston (Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, Boston, MA, 1885) and the Report of a Commission Appointed to Consider a General System of Drainage for the Valleys of Mystic, Blackstone, and Charles Rivers (Wright and Potter Printing Company, Boston, MA, 1886). Additional insights about later years were provided in private conversations with former MDC Commissioner Bill Geary in January 1993.

Paul F. Levy was Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority from August 1987 to February 1992. While in that job, he often said that a measure of his success was how unpopular he was in the community and, by that measure, he was extremely successful. He is currently a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and a principal in The Conifer Group LP, a firm offering strategic planning, marketing, and financial advisory services to infrastructure and environmental services companies.
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Author:Levy, Paul F.
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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