Time for a cleanup

by thedesignofthings

dotbostonfromplaneIt’s a beautiful thing to fly into Logan International Airport in Boston. No matter which direction you come from, the plane will eventually angle over the water of Boston Harbor, ceding views of the islands, the city, and the neighborhoods nestled into the low hills near the sea.

dotwweggs

Something else you might see are these curious eggs, arranged in what looks like a semi-industrial sculpture on an island just beyond the runway. They are the result of an environmental and economic success story – one in which an environmental disgrace actually figured into a presidential election.

The Sunday after this year’s election, we were invited by friends to see their beach house in Winthrop, a modest coastal town just beyond Logan. It is one of the last Massachusetts working class towns on the beach, with cottages crowded cheek by jowl on tiny lots festooned with funky buoy art, lobster traps, and painted Adirondack chairs. As we strolled the sand, beachcombing for shells and picking up bits of stray garbage, planes flew in low overhead for landing.

At the end of the beach, we walked onto an island that rose up with views of the Boston skyline on one side and the open ocean on the other. It was landscaped at the bottom with pretty parks with benches and trees and in the middle a berm rose up with native grasses like those that populate the marshes along Boston’s North Shore.

The berm concealed the island’s true purpose as the site of the wastewater treatment plant that was constructed to clean up Boston Harbor. And those are the eggs, which are digesters of eastern Massachusetts raw sewage that used to be dumped straight into the water.

The eggs are an engineering feat and the result of eventual political and judiciary displays of will, but they came about after centuries of avoiding the obvious. The problem of dumping raw sewage into a relatively closed harbor was first recognized in 1634 yet somehow ignored for centuries, until its solution was driven only by court order. By then, it had become Boston’s embarrassment, used by Republican presidential nominee George H. W. Bush against his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, in the 1988 campaign.

The eggs have cleaned up the harbor, and island is the pride of the beach neighborhood residents, who can walk the 2.5 mile circumference trail on a beautiful day. My neighbors, who voted for the current President-elect, loved to show it off and to tell me the biological details of how the digesters work.

During this year’s presidential campaign, both candidates promised significant investment in infrastructure, but neither mentioned any projects that might begin to tackle the enormous environmental hard stops we are coming up against. This country has a lot of resources, know-how, and creativity in engineering, finance, technology, and good old-fashioned labor. I’d love to see every city identify and apply for funds or raise bonds to tackle the latest obvious problem, engaging their eggheads, their wonks, their working class to get it done – just as Boston eventually did, albeit under duress.

Everybody knows what they are. The trashy, stinking river. The wetlands to be restored that would filter drinking water or hold a storm surge. The plastics pouring out of our landfills and into the ocean. The mountains of electronic trash. Or even, as the storied track coach would say, just start by getting the lead out.