Processes influencing the transport and fate of contaminated sediments in the coastal ocean: Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay

Circular 1302
Prepared in cooperation with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, U.S. Coast Guard, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
By: , and 
Edited by: Michael H. Bothner and Bradford Butman



Most of the major urban centers of the United States including Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle—are on a coast (fig. 1.1). All of these cities discharge treated sewage effluent into adjacent waters. In 2000, 74 percent of the U.S. population lived within 200 kilometers (km) of the coast. Between 1980 and 2002, the population density in coastal communities increased approximately 4.5 times faster than in noncoastal areas of the U.S. (Perkins, 2004). More people generate larger volumes of wastes, increase the demands on wastewater treatment, expand the area of impervious land surfaces, and use more vehicles that contribute contaminants to street runoff. According to the National Coastal Condition Report II (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2005a), on the basis of coastal habitat, water and sediment quality, benthic index, and fish tissue, the overall national coastal condition is only poor to fair and the overall coastal condition in the highly populated Northeast is poor.

Scientific information helps managers to prioritize and regulate coastal-ocean uses that include recreation, commercial fishing, transportation, waste disposal, and critical habitat for marine organisms. These uses are often in conflict with each other and with environmental concerns. Developing a strategy for managing competing uses while maintaining sustainability of coastal resources requires scientific understanding of how the coastal ocean system behaves and how it responds to anthropogenic influences. This report provides a summary of a multidisciplinary research program designed to improve our understanding of the transport and fate of contaminants in Massachusetts coastal waters.

Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor have been a focus of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research because they provide a diverse geographic setting for developing a scientific understanding of the geology, geochemistry, and oceanography of coastal systems in general. Scientific data from this region can also be used to inform decisions about important economic, environmental, and political issues. From the economic viewpoint, the annual value of tourism and shipping in Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays is about $1.5 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively. Commercial and recreational fishing generates about $240 million per year in the same region (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2005b).

The environmental issue is the 300-year history of waste discharge from the Boston metropolitan area into the harbor. This history is punctuated by cycles of environmental degradation, public outcry, and improvements in the sewage treatment system. With each improvement, however, the continuous growth of population in greater Boston (fig. 1.2) and the resulting increase in the volume of waste exceeded the capacity of the treatment system, thereby setting the stage for a new contamination crisis. By the 1980s, the levels of contaminants in sediments of Boston Harbor were among the highest in the nation (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1987). Fish were diseased, shellfish beds were closed, and swimming beaches were unsafe after heavy rains; in general, water quality and aesthetics were below acceptable standards.

Legal and political issues have always been part of Boston Harbor’s history. The environmental conditions in the 1980s were highlighted in a 1983 legal suit brought by the city of Quincy against the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC, the state agency responsible for sewage treatment) and heads of three state agencies for discharging untreated or poorly treated sewage into the harbor (Dolin, 2004). The suit never went to trial, but through the actions of a Massachusetts Superior Court, the issue of Boston Harbor contamination remained on the political and public agenda. The judge called the harbor “unsafe, unsanitary, indecent, in violation of the law (Clean Water Act), and a danger to the health and welfare of the people” (Forman, 1984). To force the state legislature to implement a plan to improve harbor conditions, the judge threatened to place the MDC in receivership and curtail new sewage hookups for industry. Under intense lobbying by business, the legislature created the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) in December 1984. The independent MWRA was established to manage Boston’s waste treatment system and was given the authority to float bonds to pay for major improvements in the treatment system.

In 1985, a Federal court began hearings on a suit brought by the Conservation Law Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), and towns of Quincy and Winthrop against the MDC and MWRA (as heir to responsibilities of the MDC) for years of violation of the Clean Water Act. The judge ruled against the defendants and required all the parties to submit a construction plan and schedule for a new sewage treatment system. From these submissions, he developed a schedule for treatment system upgrades that would give the “citizens of this commonwealth a public assurance that Boston Harbor will be cleaned up within a defined period of time” (Dolin, 2004).

The MWRA’s Boston Harbor cleanup program (Levy and Connor, 1992) has transformed the Boston sewage system. Key improvements were to (1) reduce contaminants at the industrial source; (2) remediate leaks in the sewage-collection system; (3) eliminate sewage sludge discharge to the harbor; (4) upgrade sewage treatment from primary to secondary; (5) construct a new ocean outfall 15.2 km offshore in Massachusetts Bay for discharge of treated effluent (fig. 1.3); and (6) implement improvements in the combined-sewer-overflow system.

As part of the harbor cleanup program, the MWRA developed a comprehensive monitoring program (summarized in MWRA, 2004) to assess changes in the harbor and bays that specifically related to the new sewage system. Additional information about conditions and processes in the coastal system on a regional scale and over a long time period was and continues to be important in predicting and interpreting local change. Implementation of the MWRA’s program and the mission of the USGS to understand the geology of the nation’s offshore waters provided an opportunity to conduct a cooperative multidisciplinary research program. This USGS program addresses basic scientific questions as well as concerns raised by management regarding the design, implementation, and assessment of the new sewage treatment system. Already active in Boston Harbor during the late 1970s, the USGS expanded research into Massachusetts Bay with a multidisciplinary program in 1989.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Processes influencing the transport and fate of contaminated sediments in the coastal ocean: Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay
Series title Circular
Series number 1302
ISBN 141131252X
DOI 10.3133/cir1302
Year Published 2007
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Woods Hole Science Center
Description Report Front Matter; Sections 1-12; Appendix
Country United States
State Massachusetts
Other Geospatial Boston Harbor;Massachusetts Bay
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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