Tumor-free flounder are just 1 dividend from the cleanup of Boston Harbor

Thirty years ago, during the 1988 presidential campaign, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush took a boat ride across Boston Harbor and derided the environmental record of his rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, calling the polluted waters a “harbor of shame.” Bush was right. For decades Boston had been dumping barely treated sewage into the harbor, although a court-ordered cleanup was just starting.

Since 1986 colleagues and I have studied tumors in Boston Harbor flounder, which were a major driver of public outcry over the state of the harbor. Flounder are tasty and easy to catch, and have long been a popular commercial and recreational species in Massachusetts coastal waters. But a 1984 study showed that 8 percent of winter flounder sampled from Boston Harbor had liver tumors. Another study found tumors in 15 percent of winter flounder and suggested that they were caused by exposure to sewage-borne pollutants.

Today the picture is very different. In a recent study, we provided evidence that the goal of cleaning up toxic chemicals from Boston Harbor has been met. Boston Harbor flounder are dramatically healthier, even those caught near an offshore outfall where treated sewage is now discharged into Massachusetts Bay. In fact, levels of disease associated with contaminant exposure are lower in flounder caught near the outfall than they were in the early 1990s. Boston Harbor’s turnaround shows that heavily damaged ecosystems can recover and provide benefits far larger than their cleanup costs.

Vice President George H.W. Bush gestures from a boat in Boston Harbor during a campaign stop in Boston, Sept. 1, 1988. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Impact of the Clean Water Act

In 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which established the legal framework for regulating pollutant discharges into U.S. waters. At that time, Boston Harbor was severely polluted.

Raw sewage discharges had made local beaches risky for swimmers since the late 1800s. By the mid-20th century, heavy loads of pesticides, PCBs and heavy metals were also flowing into the harbor, contaminating sediments and marine organisms. Two overloaded treatment plants discharged largely untreated sewage and sludge into shallow harbor waters.

Finally, in 1982 the Boston suburb of Quincy, the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation and the federal government all sued Boston under the Clean Water Act for failing to update its sewage treatment systems. Evidence of tumors in flounder helped convince presiding Judge Paul Garrity that dramatic action was required. As Garrity asserted:

“The current and potential impact of pollution upon the health, welfare and safety of persons who live and work nearby Boston Harbor and who use it for commercial, recreational, and other purposes is staggering. The damage to that environment and to the creatures who live in it may very well become irreversible unless measures are taken to control, and at some point preclude, the pollution and consequent destruction of that very valuable resource.”

As a result, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was established in 1985, and a court-ordered cleanup began. The timeline called for ending sewage sludge discharges by December 1991, developing secondary sewage treatment by 1997, and building a 9.5-mile tunnel that would carry treated effluent offshore by 2000. The cost for constructing the new secondary treatment plant and discharge tunnel was US$3.8 billion.

Metals in MWRA treatment plant discharges to Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay have declined by more than 80 percent as a result of the harbor cleanup. MWRA

The changing flounder fishery

Even at its dirtiest in the 1970s and 1980s, Boston Harbor was a mecca for recreational flounder fishing. At one time, six businesses rented fishing skiffs out of Hough’s Neck in Quincy Bay, the southern arm of Boston Harbor, to anglers pursuing flounder that spent cold-weather months in Boston Harbor. This peninsula was referred to as the “flounder capital of the world.”