U.S. Water News Online
BOSTON -- The ``dirty water'' of Boston Harbor has been
used as a political weapon and inspiration for pithy lines in rock
music. One researcher thinks it could soon be history.
Microbes in the water may have a greater capacity to devour fuel
waste than originally thought, a new study found, suggesting the
harbor could cleanse itself within 20 years, barring any major fuel
leaks, according to Derek Lovley, a microbiologist at the University
``It is optimistic,'' said Lovley, co-author of the study. ``It is
The Boston Harbor's pollution problem was introduced to a broad
audience in the Standells' 1966 ode to Boston, ``Dirty Water.'' In
1988, George H.W. Bush helped sink Massachusetts Gov. Michael
Dukakis' presidential bid by touring the harbor to highlight its
The water quality has greatly improved after a multibillion-dollar
cleanup effort -- including the construction of the Deer Island
Sewage Treatment Plant -- but problems remain. If it's true the
pollutants will break down naturally, the expensive and potentially
damaging dredging of the harbor floor to get remaining waste could be
But Eugene Madsen, a Cornell University microbiologist, warned the
study contains no basis for the UMass predictions.
Some of the contaminants in the sludge remained untouched in the
experiment and Madsen is skeptical about the amount of biodegradation
reported on certain compounds. It's also unproven if the results in
the simulation are actually happening in the harbor itself, making a
20-year timetable for self-cleaning unrealistic, he said.
Still, Madsen said, the study offers more proof that some
contaminants not previously thought to be biodegradable may be
naturally breaking down.
``The case is being strengthened,'' Madsen said. ``There's more
evidence now than there was before.''
The Navy-funded research at UMass challenged the longheld
assumption that petroleum contaminants, called polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons, or PAHs, could not degrade once they sank into the
muddy harbor bottom, where there's little oxygen.
Previous experiments have shown that benzene degrades in the
absence of oxygen. The harbor's waste is essentially groups of
benzene rings, so scientists figured it was worth a shot.
``The likelihood was that it wouldn't work, but it seemed
worthwhile to test it,'' Lovley said.
The scientists took sediment from an area of the harbor known as
Island End, located in Everett near a former coal tar plant. After
monitoring the samples for 338 days, they found the PAHs broke down
20 percent to 25 percent.
The key appears to be the presence of sulfate, a salt of sulfuric
acid which is abundant in seawater, Lovley said. The microbes appear
to use it as a substitute for oxygen, breaking down the waste in the
same way humans use oxygen to break down their food.
The UMass research, published recently in the journal
Environmental Science and Technology, was centered in Boston Harbor,
but the process is not unique to it. The researchers tested sediment
from Tampa, Fla., San Diego and Latvia to ensure the cleansing was
not just a product of local environmental conditions, Lovley said.
Bruce Berman of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, a nonprofit group
that works to restore and protect Boston Harbor and Massachusetts
Bay, said he welcomed the news, if it's true. But he added any
self-cleansing properties in the harbor shouldn't be used to let oil
companies off the hook for past and future spills.
``If there were never any more oil going into the harbor, this
would be really good news,'' he said. ``Since there is, it's pretty
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