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Frymire's sense of phew: a sleuth smells trouble

River activist tracks pollution

Standing atop a concrete drainage pipe that empties into the Charles River, Roger Frymire didn't like what he smelled.

It was the odor of sewage in the air.

''Faintly sweet-smelling," he said, turning his nose into the breeze. ''Like laundry detergent mixed with something else that's indescribable."

When Frymire sniffs, municipalities from Waltham to Boston shudder. Frymire uses his sense of smell to identify stormwater drain pipes that illegally spew sewage into the river. Although a volunteer, Frymire's nose has the ear of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which last month used data he gathered to order Newton, Waltham, Brookline, and Watertown to fix the problems by next spring or face hearings and penalties of up to $12,500 a day.

William Walsh-Rogalski, a lawyer for the EPA, said water samples Frymire collected from drainage pipes over the last two years showed hazardous levels of bacteria in pipes that should carry only runoff and storm water. Walsh-Rogalski said the regional EPA office does not have enough staff to test all the drainage outlets along the river, but Frymire's work gave them the data necessary to take enforcement action.

''Pound for pound, he is the most dangerous man in Boston," he said. ''He uses his nose."

Frymire, 48, didn't always have a dangerous nose.

A computer programmer who dropped out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Frymire helped pioneer technology for automatic teller machines. He took early retirement about 10 years ago to pursue leisurely interests, such as kayaking and reading science fiction. Paddling on the river near his home in Cambridge, he noticed that the breeze was not always fresh. He traced one particularly foul odor to its origin and found himself in a portion of river polluted with human waste.

Disgusted, he contacted the nonprofit Charles River Watershed Association and volunteered to collect water and take it to a lab for testing.

That was seven years ago, and he has been a pollution sleuth ever since.

Twice a month, year-round, Frymire scouts for suspicious-smelling drainage pipes. On two other days a month, he wakes before dawn to collect water samples from the most offensive pipes.

Sewage and stormwater flowed in the same pipelines until passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, which required communities to funnel them separately. Contractors still occasionally connect sewage pipes from homes and businesses to storm drainage pipes. Frymire travels by foot, car, or boat sniffing for evidence. He said he has visited more than 600 drainage outlets along the Charles River and its tributaries, which he said is a fraction of the total number.

Sometimes he catches a whiff of laundry or dishwasher detergent; other times he is assaulted by far more foul odors. He said he has seen toilet paper, condoms, and sanitary napkins around and in drains. Wearing plastic gloves, he scoops up samples from inside the pipes using a 10-foot pole he rigged with a cup at the end of it.

''This is what I do for fun," Frymire said. ''It's strange, yes, but it's fun."

Over the last two years, test results showed fecal coliform levels that exceeded the state's standard for safe swimming coming from 11 pipes in Newton, 19 in Waltham, six in Watertown, and 19 along Charles River tributaries in Brookline. A sample from a pipe near Newton Street in Waltham showed more than 1,000 times acceptable swimming levels. Frymire e-mails his findings to local officials as well as the state Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA. He also phones and visits public officials to request information or share an observation of a problem. Those who have encountered him say he is usually soft-spoken and polite, as well as persistent.

Local officials in the five communities cited by the EPA have questioned the accuracy of the findings, and officials in each jurisdiction said they had already been working to correct drainage problems.

Theodore Jerdee, utilities director for Newton, said he has heard workers refer to Frymire as the ''Mad Kayaker," but he has grown to view him as a community asset. He sees and smells things others miss, Jerdee said, and doesn't charge a cent.

''His tips pay off," he said. ''I'll give the guy all the credit in the world. Anyone that's willing to go [where he goes] deserves it."

John Bradley, director of public works in Waltham, said he doesn't know Frymire, and he doesn't agree with his method of testing.

Samples taken at the mouth of a pipe could contain water contaminated upstream, he said. He plans to ask the EPA to let him conduct his own water tests using samples taken out of manholes.

''I am not going to get into a debate with a regulatory agency," Bradley said. ''But I feel it's important to test in[side] a drainage system."

Peter Ditto, Brookline's director of sewer and water engineering, said it was frustrating to get the EPA order. Town employees have been identifying and fixing drainage problems on their own. He said work on the problem began before he received his first e-mail from Frymire two years ago.

''It's not something we necessarily want to see," he said of Frymire's data. ''We usually say, 'Here he goes again.' "

Amy Schofield, a project manager at Boston Water and Sewer, which was not cited by the EPA, said she has found Frymire to be demanding in her dealings with him.

She said some communities still use clay pipes more than 100 years old that are prone to leaking and collapsing, and she said runoff containing dog feces could taint his samples.

''He wants immediate action now, right away, whatever the cost," she said. ''Well, it's not that simple."

In his typically quiet but confident manner, Frymire dismissed the possibility that high bacteria levels in his samples could be due to animal waste.

''Dog waste has its own odor. It has a very acrid smell . . . more biting than pungent," he said.

A lifelong bachelor, Frymire said he has found a sense of community among environmental activists. He consults with watershed officials regularly and has amassed hundreds of river maps from state archives, public libraries, and the MWRA.

He has been known to wear his tuxedo on occasion to meetings of river advocates, but it's his nose that attracts the most attention.

While some say he can detect the most infinitesimal traces of sewage, he denied any special sensory powers.

''I'm just more tired of [the smells] than other people," he said.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at 508-820-4251 or

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