Once upon a time our public rivers and streams were essentially our sewers. In the 1800s, it wasn’t uncommon to essentially leave waste in the streets and let it get washed into the river by the rain. In the 1900s, it wasn’t uncommon for public sewers to dump raw sewage into the nearest major body of water. In some places, this is even still common practice. In the 1980s, Boston Harbor was one of these places.
The Grossest Harbor in the Country
Boston’s original sewer system dumped raw sewage 500 feet off the coast line. The belief at the time was that the ocean was so vast that the sewage would be harmlessly diluted. It was the 1800s and Boston was a smaller place back then. For a few decades, the system worked, but as the population grew, it became impossible to wash away that much waste. The entire harbor was soon contaminated with excrement and all the biohazards millions of sick and healthy people produce every day.
By the 1940s the contamination was becoming evident, with cloudy, gross water in the harbor. By the 1950s there was some waste treatment, but it wouldn’t be able to keep up with Boston’s growing output. It takes time and space to treat waste like this, and the plants that were built didn’t have enough of either to keep things running smoothly forever. On days when the plants couldn’t keep up, the sewage still had to go somewhere, so the raw waste was just dumped into the sea, where it contaminated the harbor.
These were the days before we had any significant environmental regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t exist until Nixon signed it into existence in the 1970s. There was no Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act mandating that the harbor be safer than toxic sludge. The cleanliness of the environment was strictly on the local government and population, who took no action so long as the toilet still worked.
The drawbacks of this approach are massive. Disease will run rampant in the environment, to the point that fish and other wildlife captured near the contamination will almost be guaranteed to contain diseases or toxic byproducts from drugs and other chemicals. Imagine venison or sushi soaked in a drain declogger or waste chemicals washed down the drain from your mop bucket. The toxins from the harbor eventually make their way back into humanity, sometimes from airborne diseases, sometimes by seeping into ground water, and quite often from someone falling into the disgusting water surrounding the harbor (and then needing a shelf of antibiotics just to feel like they’d caught the flu, the plague, or something more gentle than their toxic exposure).
A Massive Cleanup Effort
In the 1980s, the Clean Water Act was used to secure a court order that Boston clean up the toxic waste dump they called a harbor. It’s one of the biggest environmental clean up efforts ever taken. The process required building new waste treatment facilities that could keep up with demand and dumping the treated water far from the harbor.
A new facility was built on Boston’s Deer Island, a modern plant using the latest in pumps, processing, and sanitation technology (for the 1980s). Everything produced there was directed into a massive 10 mile long tunnel that ran under the ocean floor to dump even the sanatized waste as far from the harbor as possible. Once sewage has been processed, it is generally harmless, but some contaminants may still need to be diluted and left for mother nature to break down under the intense UV light of the sun or the remarkably destructive power of other bacteria in the environment.
This was a really crappy tunnel, it was the hardest and deadliest part of the entire project. There were no significant casualties building the sewage plants or working to clean the harbor, but the tunnel was a nightmare. The tunnel was toxic before any waste had flowed into it. Various bacteria and other environmental hazards had taken over, leaving it an air-less, toxin-rich atmosphere. You could survive on Mars longer than in the tunnel. These conditions caused two deaths in the final stages of preparing the tunnel before a whole new approach was taken to preparing the tunnel.
The Results Today
The cleanup efforts are still going on decades later. On most days, Boston Harbor and the surrounding bodies of water are safe for both swimming and fishing, but the legacy of literally a century and more of raw sewage cannot be washed away in decades. Bacteria like E.Coli still contaminate the land in and around Boston. After rainfall, these bacteria can be washed from the soil into the water where they can easily infect and kill swimmers and fishers alike.
The Deer Island Plant and others in the area are a massive improvement over the system beforehand. Processed waste is nearly harmless and doesn’t significantly contribute to harming the environment, but there are days where even the modern plant is unable to cope with the sewage flow. There are up to 60 days a year where raw sewage is discharged into the ocean. Despite the 10 mile long pipe, it’s still possible for the tides to carry it back to the harbor.
This is one massive area where the new toilets being developed by the Gates Foundation would have a massive impact on our modern world. The initial goal of their project was to provide sanitation to the parts of the world most at risk. As we look over our own country though, it’s becoming clear, the entire world is at risk.
If you have a sanitation issue, learn from Boston and clean it up sooner than later. You’ll pay for it in the long run if you don’t.