Sewage release brings calls for answers

Storm flow could have destroyed station

By David Abel
Globe Staff / March 18, 2010

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The weekend’s driving rains dropped more than 10 inches on the Boston area over 72 hours. By Monday, the deluge had become so overwhelming that a record 400 million gallons of water and raw sewage was flowing through the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Nut Island facility on Quincy Bay.

The surge left MWRA officials with two bad choices: pump some untreated sewage into Boston Harbor or let it back up in homes and flood the station.

For nearly an hour Monday, they chose to empty some 15 million gallons of untreated sewage into Quincy Bay, in the southern reaches of Boston Harbor, saving the station, but angering local officials.

“This is where we boat, swim, fish; we care about this,’’ said Daniel G. Raymondi, a Quincy city councilor whose district borders the bay. “We have paid a tremendous price to clean up the bay. This is very concerning.’’

At a meeting a few hours after the 15 million gallons was released into the bay, city councilors voted to call for an independent investigation into the MWRA decision and for the independent public agency to cover cleanup costs. They also sought help from Framingham and 20 other municipalities that send their waste water to Nut Island, where it is partly filtered and sent to a treatment plant on Deer Island.

“It would be illegal if any homeowner, business owner, or other resident dumped raw sewage into the town brook, and here we have 15 million gallons of partial sewage in the bay,’’ Raymondi said.

“We need an investigation into why they did this, under what authority they did this, and what the impact is on the bay,’’ he said. “Are there any short-term or long-term consequences? And what can be done structurally in the future to make sure that we don’t have the option of sewage backing up in houses or dumping raw sewage into the bay?’’

State environmental officials are reviewing the incident.

Authority officials said they made the right call and would not change their response if they had to do it again. They also said the threat of bacteria is limited and that the water quality should be back to normal by the end of the week.

Frederick A. Laskey, the authority’s executive director, said his staff waited as long as possible, until the water level rose to the station’s floorboards, before discharging the sewage. He said the MWRA’s permit allows sewage to be released into the bay if it helps avoid catastrophic damage to their facilities and protects property and public health.

“We believe both of these thresholds were easily met,’’ he said. “We believe this will not be a violation of our permit.’’

He said the record flow of sewage to Deer Island exceeded by 70 million gallons the previous record set during a storm on Mother’s Day in 2006.

“Our decision was the right thing for the environment and for public health,’’ he said. “The only other thing was to have been more conservative and to have discharged earlier, putting more sewage in the harbor.’’

Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the MWRA notified his office of the discharge within 24 hours, as required. Within five days, they are required to provide a report on what happened and why.

“Obviously, this was a very large event,’’ Coletta said. “We’ll be looking at the information they send. At this point, I’m not aware of any violation.’’

Environmental advocates and some Quincy officials defended the authority’s decision.

Bruce Berman, a spokesman for the Boston-based advocacy group Save the Harbor-Save the Bay, described the storm as a “100-year event’’ that would test any sewage system. He said he was proud of how the authority handled the crisis.

“I don’t think there was anything better they could have done,’’ Berman said. “They did a superb job managing an incredibly difficult situation.’’

He added: “I absolutely understand why people are upset. Twenty years ago, we released 280 million gallons of largely untreated waste every day. Today, we make news when we release 15 million gallons of sewage once, during a really big storm. That’s good news.’’

Chris Walker, a spokesman for Mayor Thomas Koch of Quincy, called the discharge an unfortunate event that no one welcomed. But he added, “The mayor supports their choice and would rather see waste in the ocean than in people’s homes.’’

Douglas S. Gutro, a Quincy city councilor who did not vote on the resolution, called the decision “a necessary evil.’’

“The alternative would have not been in the best interests of the residents or the treatment plant,’’ he said.

David Abel can be reached at