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Poor man's waterway, for decades left neglected, is finding its champions

There's been no lights, camera, or action for the Mystic River. The Boston Harbor and Charles River cleanups have had their billions and their fanfare. But the Mystic -- where some of the Commonwealth's poorest communities with large immigrant populations go to fish, boat, and swim -- has been left behind, according to many who care about it.


''It's a very neglected body of water and very much impacted by industry," says Nancy Hammett, executive director of the Mystic River Watershed Association, a citizens group that has been working to protect and restore the water quality and natural resources of the watershed area for the past 30 years.

Hammett says her group has been conducting surveys to better understand how the river is being used, dispatching bicyclists to ride along the river observing activities and interview people fishing, swimming, and boating. The association has also been testing water -- and finding high levels of bacteria.

''A lot of people are eating the fish," she says. ''My first reaction is, 'Oh my God!' "

Still, others who know the Mystic say things are getting better.

''Four or five years ago there were no snails," says fisherman Tom Tavares. ''Now there are. It's a good sign that the water is cleaning up." Tavares, who has been going down to Draw Seven Park at the Amelia Earhart Dam to fish for nearly 25 years, says clams are starting to make a comeback, too.

The area in question is large: The Mystic River Watershed encompasses 76 square miles and 21 communities, according to the association. The system's headwater begins with the Aberjona River in Reading and flows into the Upper Mystic Lake, and the Mystic River flows directly from the Lower Mystic Lake and ultimately empties into Boston Harbor.

Among the people who live and work along it, reviews of how the watershed is really faring are mixed.

The Charlestown Side

After years of staring at an abandoned lot full of overgrown weeds and household trash, Ann and Joe Silva decided to take matters into their own hands. Since 1998, they've been working with other Charlestown residents to clean up the park on Terminal Street. ''The city doesn't do anything," says Ann Silva, who says the locals refer to the park as Montego Bay, referring to all the stolen cars -- particularly Monte Carlos -- that used to be dumped there. ''We're doing the cleaning. We're doing the sweeping."

With little open space and dense communities, access to the river is limited. ''We're so jammed in here," says Silva, 57, who has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years. She says after she's had a fight with her husband, the park is a nice place to go to cool off. ''We go over there for some space. When you go by the water it soothes you."

Silva says she and her husband spend $6 a week on sturdy trash bags to clean up the park. On a fixed income, Silva says that's a lot, but it's worth it since her husband does most of the trash removal and sometimes finds needles and other items he'd rather put in a secure bag than let get loose again. For a recent Father's Day, Silva said her son sent some money as a gift and the couple purchased a new weed whacker to use in the park.

A few years ago, Silva says she was able to get two picnic tables donated from the Charlestown offices of Massachusetts General Hospital, and she and her husband built a bench facing the water. Thanks to the changes, residents use the park during the day and often drag grills down on a summer night to cook dinner.

''It's a lively little inlet," says Ivey St. John, chairwoman of the Charlestown Waterfront Coalition's strategic planning committee.

''Frankly, the BRA has neglected it," she says, referring to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which oversees the property.

Dave McLaughlin, assistant director of communications for the BRA, says his agency has worked out an agreement with a local marine shop to maintain the boat ramp at the inlet, so that it is available for public use. As for the park being neglected, McLaughlin says the BRA is currently negotiating to have that area maintained as well.

St. John's group is working with neighboring industries and city officials to establish a haul road to help divert industrial traffic away from residential areas, while also focusing on other traffic and environmental issues. ''We're just interested in ensuring and enhancing public access to the Mystic River," says St. John.

But while the park looks nice and Silva says she is proud of the work she's done, she's angry about the water quality. ''There are grown men who swim in there," she exclaims. ''I would never do that." She says her husband sometimes sees fuel streams in the water and traces them back to the docks where they originated. Sometimes kids in the neighborhood get sick after swimming, Silva says.

''How these kids are still alive is baffling to me," says St. John, noting that the same commercial and industrial growth that cities are pining for is also hurting the river. ''It's a Catch 22," she says.

Fishing the Mystic Up the river a ways, a group of 10 or so men, including Tom Tavares, have been hard at work to keep another waterfront park clean and accessible. ''This area is a beautiful park," Tavares says of the Draw Seven. ''It needs tender loving care, and no one wants to give it. So, we kind of maintain it ourselves."

Tavares and his buddies cut the grass, pick up trash, and generally keep the place looking nice. They've bolted two chairs to a nearby fence and placed at the top of a long flagpole a wooden fish that one of the gang carved and painted. During the summer, Tavares says he's often at the park before the sun comes up and doesn't leave until well after dark. Tavares says he usually catches bass, but last year bluefish and mackerel appeared.

The park is just behind Assembly Square and is bordered by train tracks. Other than the rumbling of the Orange Line and the commuter rail, Tavares and his friends usually have few interruptions. But recently, they've been bothered by the addition of a chain-link fence near the dam entrance.

''That will be our own personal gill net soon," says Tavares, pointing as he explains that come spring he's sure the herring will get trapped in the fence, which juts out into the water, and start to stink up the area. He's tried to get officials to pay attention, but he's gotten nowhere.

Juan Mejia, one of the group, says he just knows that he should keep away from the fish. ''No, no. I wouldn't touch that stuff," says Mejia, who has been fishing with Tavares for 15 years. ''All the industrial stuff around here. That's why I'm afraid of taking the fish from here." Instead Mejia throws back what he catches, spends time with his friends, and gives his dog Bobby an opportunity to be outside. ''It's like a club," he says of the group, which meets at the park almost every day, even in winter. ''They weren't maintaining the park, so we brought in our own weed whackers."

Tavares is hopeful that the various community groups that are now paying attention to the Mystic will be able to make some significant strides. He wants to see the rusty pipes on the beach removed and hopes someone will deal with the dilapidated dock at the end of the beach.

On the other side of the dam, not far from Draw Seven Park, the Blessing of the Bay Boathouse sits as home to one of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Middlesex County. Gary Gartland, president and CEO of the organization, says that on a sunny summer day there could be 30 canoes and kayaks, with local teens learning to boat and enjoying the water. But the youths aren't permitted to swim, and Gartland says he's pulled shopping carts, tires, and rusty metal from the bay.

''There are kids from Somerville who if you didn't bring them there they wouldn't know there was a Mystic River," says Gartland. ''That's a place for kids to get out on the water, expand their horizons and see that there is some pretty neat open space in Somerville that they never knew about." With outreach and education, Gartland says more people are becoming aware and interested in the boathouse and the river. He says during summer the public is welcome to rent boats for a nominal fee.

Eastie teens get involved Another group of teens has been given a very different introduction to the watershed area. This past summer, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, a local organization that works to improve the quality of life for East Boston residents, hired several high schoolers to work on environmental issues and learn about environmental justice. The Environmental Chelsea Creek Crew is composed of five teens who are willing to brave even the coldest of days to test the Chelsea Creek water from East Boston's Condor Street Urban Wild. The park was renovated and unveiled recently, after having been converted from a brownfield.

Staring out at uncovered salt piles and industry across the creek, the teens sample water while testing for salinity, acidity, and temperature. ''They're testing to get a feel for what can and can't live here," explains Meghan McGrath, youth coordinator for Neighborhood of Affordable Housing.

''This is a major achievement," McGrath says of the park cleanup. Part of environmental justice includes establishing access to the waterfront for certain communities, and the newly opened park opens up the opportunity for neighbors to enjoy the water. ''This is a point of access that the community deserves."

And the teens are proud of the part they've played in the park's renovation.

''I used to stay away from it because it was so dirty," says 15-year-old Shaundra Miles. ''But now after school I go down to the park to hang out."

''These kids have taken some ownership of this park," says McGrath, explaining that they've become stewards and community leaders through this after-school and summer program. ''It's theirs now, and they care about it."

The teens have organized cleanups and holiday events to promote the new park, and they have gone door-to-door letting nearby residents know about the open space now available for use.

The group is learning about air and water quality and that some of the area's watersheds are treated with more respect and given more attention than the Mystic. ''Just because we're teenagers, we've learned that we can teach others about environmental justice and teach them how harmful it is to throw things in the river," says Camilo Toro, a high school junior. ''We want East Boston to look as nice as all of the other areas around us. It's not fair for East Boston to carry all of the salt piles."

Cleaning up the MysticNancy Hammett says the Mystic River Watershed Association and other groups have a goal in mind: ''Fishable and swimmable by 2010," she says. But listing some of the problems that must first be tackled reveals that the goal is a daunting -- almost overwhelming -- one.

''Water quality is a major problem," says Kwabena Kyei-Aboagye, the state's environmental justice coordinator. Kyei-Aboagye says initial sediment reports from the US Geological Survey indicate there are high levels of metals and waste in the soil, though other tests have been inconclusive. ''The river is not really healthy for any kind of activity," he says. ''It needs a lot of help."

Part of what makes the pollution a justice issue is that ''immigrants who don't speak English fish all of the river," says Kyei-Aboagye, who acknowledges that more signage, in various languages, is needed along its banks. ''Everybody has the right to live in and enjoy clean and healthy environments."

In addition to contamination and water quality issues, the lack of open space and access to the river is a problem, according to Hammett.

She says the association and others are publicizing the various boathouses along the river that offer opportunities for canoeing and boating.

''We don't want people to turn their back on their river, but we want them to use it safely," she says.

Federal and state funding cuts, particularly in the area of the environment, have slowed progress.

''Of the money that's there, we want to see that the Mystic gets a share of it," says Hammett. ''The Charles has gotten a lot of attention and money." She points out that the pampering has paid off, since the Charles is often swimmable and access to the river is good.

''More people are affected by dirty industry in poorer communities and minority communities," says state Senator Jarrett Barrios, who has introduced the Clean and Healthy Communities Act, aimed at creating regulations to protect communities from poor environmental policies and pollution caused by industry. ''We want to create incentives for clean industry to come into the community."

Barrios's legislation would work to define those lacking environmental justice, and target compliance and enforcement while helping communities to deal with industrial waste.

As well, the bill would mandate the expansion of programs to turn brownfields --land that has become polluted, then abandoned -- into redeveloped areas.

''People have begun a dialogue," says Lisa Brukilacchio, a community engagement specialist with the University College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. Tufts students and faculty have partnered with the watershed association to work on the river-related issues and are currently working to come up with a plan of action. ''These are hard topics. We're talking about the possibility that some citizens get more or less than their share."

An initial summit titled ''Environmental Justice Across the Mystic" was held in November at Tufts in an effort to bring together various communities and local groups to start pooling resources, energy, and information.

''The issues facing the Mystic River are major," says the state's Kyei-Aboagye. ''It took many years to degrade the river, so it's going to take many more to fix it."

E-mail Bridget Samburg at

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