Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Diesel oil spill at MWRA plant

An accident at the MWRA Cottage Farm plant just east of the BU Bridge in Cambridge is estimated to have spilled 1000 gallons of diesel oil into the Charles. (See

As crews from Clean Harbors and the MWRA worked around us late this afternoon, the MWRA's Chief Operating Officer, Mike Hornbrook, gave me a tour of the site and explained what had happened.

Oil from a delivery yesterday had overflowed exterior pipes at the western end of the plant. Around midnight a routine inspection discovered what had spilled onto the building and driveway and into the soil toward the river. That spill was confined and cleaned up then. Only in daylight did crews see from the telltale red dye from diesel in the river, bad news that oil had spilled onto the roof of the MWRA plant, into its stormwater system, and into the water at the river's very edge, where the ice is melted.

Since then crews had been working to contain and clean up the oil. They'll continue as long as it takes to get it done, Mr. Hornbrook said.

The cleanup has meant breaking the ice about 4' from the shore and installing a boom parallel to it to contain the spill, and sopping up the oil within the dammed part. Oil that splashed onto the ice beyond the boom will also be removed, he said, as will all contaminated soil ashore.

I was very happy to learn they have also put in a boom downriver, across the water under the first arch of the BU Bridge. It extends from the goose meadow shore where Kathy Podgers and I saw the Great Blue Heron last fall to the far pier of the bridge's first arch.

When I visited the goose meadow later and looked upriver through the arch and along the shore, I could see no red on the ice or in the water. Canada geese on the river ice and in the open water had no oil on them that I could see.

At the goose meadow there were lots of Canadas and mallard ducks as well as the Charles River White Geese and Charles River White Ducks. They were very happy to get the cracked corn I had brought them. I was very happy to see they were apparently unaffected by the spill.

Mr. Hornbrook said that in addition to the MWRA and Clean Harbors, there had been people from the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Coast Guard, and the Cambridge Fire Department, Department of Public Works, and the Conservation Commission at the site today.

I thanked Mr. Hornbrook for all the information and the tour. The MWRA has always been forthcoming and helpful, true stewards of the river in my opinion. Again, as the snow fell around us, Mr. Hornbrook said the crews would stay at the site as long as it took to clean up the spill. The agency's commitment to its mission was clear to me.

Postscript added February 11, 2010

To expand a bit on the concluding paragraph:

The contrast with the DCR's stewardship is striking. That agency installed 6 acres of commercial sod at Ebersol Fields in Boston in the spring of 2006. I attended the Boston Conservation Commission hearing at which the DCR asked for permission to add "Tartan," a fungicide not to be applied near water, to the usual mix of chemicals applied to the turf. The ConCom granted that permission.

As reported here previously, runoff from that sod and its continuing chemical maintenance fed the astronomical algae bloom of August and September 2006 and cancellation of the first Charles River swim. Thus fed, the algae continued their annual blooms at toxic levels thereafter and repeatedly forced the DCR to move the annual swim ever earlier, to try to beat the blooms. Reports were that you could smell the fertilizer from the fields in the middle of the river.

The DCR has never acknowledged its crime against the environment and creation of a public health hazard at Ebersol Fields. MEPA and the EPA and the Charles River Watershed Association know what the DCR did there but have failed to inform the public.

At a 2008 neighborhood meeting in Cambridgeport both the DCR planner and Charles River district manager blandly denied the DCR uses chemicals on the river at all. When asked why, if this were now indeed the case, they had changed their policy since installing the sod at Ebersol Fields in 2006, they sat wide-eyed and silent.

Ominously, the DCR and Cambridge have refused to say what chemicals are in the sod they installed at Magazine Beach in 2008 or what chemicals they will use to maintain it.

Again, in my opinion, the MWRA stands in stark contrast to the DCR in its stewardship of our public assets.

Marilyn Wellons