Will the Neponset River finally get the cleanup it needs?
The Neponset River may be little known to those living outside of Greater Boston, but the body of water meanders from the Neponset Reservoir adjacent to Gillette Stadium all the way to Dorchester Bay, where it joins the Atlantic Ocean. During the past several hundred years, the river has fostered the industrialization of the region, and at great expense.
Maria Lyons knows the Neponset well. Growing up around Meeting House Hill in Dorchester, she spent many summer days during her childhood at Tenean Beach, a public recreation area where the river merges into Boston Harbor. Adults used to say there were bad chemicals in the water, even though the river didn’t seem dirty. But in time, the Neponset’s appearance changed significantly.
“There were some people who used to jump off the bridges into the river, but I never did,” Lyons recalls. “After a while, the beach just got so disgusting, people just stopped going.”
A recent study shows that the fecal bacterial level in the water at Tenean Beach exceeded the normal concentration 29 out of 85 testing days in 2020. As you might have guessed, high fecal bacterial levels means the water is unsafe for swimming. It’s just the latest bad news overflowing in an area that has wrestled with pollution and damage from extreme weather for centuries.
Prior to the 1600s, indigenous Massachusetts villages spanned from Salem to Plymouth along the coast. By the time Europeans formed the Plymouth Colony in 1620, members of the Neponset tribe regarded Passanageset (now Quincy) as their principal summer settlement. Among other activities, they used the plain south of the Neponset to raise corn.
In 1630, a group of English migrants arrived at Nantasket. The leader of the indigenous people, Chickataubut, made a deal with the migrants, allowing them to reside in the Dorchester area if they paid the tribe. The migrants were only granted permission to occupy. But according to one history of Dorchester published in 1859, by 1632 white migrants were already petitioning their own courts for access to ownership, and by the 1650s indigenous people were being relocated to the current Blue Hills Reservation.
Industry was there from the beginning of this changing of hands. In 1634, a young migrant named Israel Stoughton erected the first mill on the Neponset River. Stoughton built a dam across the river to power the mill, creating the second dam in the new world (the place where the mill once stood is now known as the Lower Mills neck of Dorchester). Soon after the completion of the first dam on the river, a series of water-powered sawmills, powder mills, and tanneries followed. Over the next several centuries, the area became an industrial powerhouse and home to almost any kind of business imaginable that blew smoke into the sky and poured its waste into the nearby waterways.
Mills running along the banks for hundreds of years brought prosperity along with serious pollution.
In response, local activists have made efforts to clean the river since the 1950s. In August 1966, a group of environmentalists took Jane Bernstein, a journalist with the Quincy Patriot Ledger, for a canoe ride down the Neponset. Bernstein reported, “We were overwhelmed by the noxious odor caused by the industrial waste dumped into the river … gobs of sludge floated past us … more gobs of raw paper over a foot thick, so blocked our passage … that we were forced to carry the canoes for about half a mile until we found a clear area.”
In August 1967, nine activists founded the Neponset Conservation Association (now Neponset River Watershed Association) five years prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. That measure spurred municipalities to form conservation commissions to administer wetland protection rules, and in their first few decades, these outfits worked on limiting ongoing discharge along the river.
Around the same time, Lyons was pursuing a biology degree at Boston University, and prior to graduating in 1976, studied the ecological history of the Neponset River.
“Once I finished my research, I always kept an eye out on the river,” Lyons explained. “I moved to Port Norfolk, right next to the river so that I can see the river from my window.”
Lyons has actively protected the Neponset ever since, attending meetings about and organizing on behalf of the river and its neighbors. In the 1990s, activists including watershed association members petitioned to remove or modify the dams on the river in order to restore the migratory route of fish that used to breed in the upper stream. Among the impediments were the Baker Dam and the Tileston and Hollingsworth Dam (T&H Dam); the former was used to power the iconic Walter Baker Chocolate Company mill, which was first established in the 1700s and by the 19th Century became one of the most prolific chocolate companies in the world, while the latter powered one of many paper mills along the river.
In 1955, two hurricanes swept across New England back-to-back, destroying both of the dams. Two new dams were built to control potential flooding and replace the old Baker Dam and the T&H dam. Those dams remain in place today; however, the Neponset River Watershed Association has argued that the dams play a feeble if not adverse role in controlling flood waters. Specifically, the association points out that the current Baker dam allows the water to back up, raising water levels during major storms and causing water to spill onto adjacent properties. The Neponset went through two significant flood events in 1968 and 1998, with the Baker dam flooding nearby railroad tracks and bike paths during both. According to activists and researchers, T&H Dam only has a flood storage capacity of 60 acre-feet, which means that the dam has the capacity to store only .15% of the 100-year flood volume and reduce the peak discharge rate by approximately .14%.
And the overflow is only part of the problem. These days, as a routine process, an official team from the watershed association tests the soil near to the dams for pollutants. Ian Cooke, who was the association’s sole employee when he joined in 1993 and is currently the executive director, said ever since a report published in 1994 noted traces of PCBs in the area, the group has focused on those dangerous contaminants.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines PCBs as “a group of man-made organic chemicals consisting of carbon, hydrogen and chlorine atoms.” Artificially produced from 1929 until they were banned in 1979, they were widely used in paints, electrical devices, plastics, and countless other manufactured goods.
PCBs are difficult to break down in natural environments. When they are released into the water, they are likely to contaminate the animals that live there. Humans are also likely to ingest PCBs via contaminated animals, potentially contributing to a variety of adverse health effects including cancer.
In 2004, the United States Geological Survey published a thorough survey regarding PCB contamination along the Neponset River. Researchers pulled samples from multiple sites within the Lower Neponset, a section that stretches from Fowl Meadow to the Walter Baker Dam. (Lyons takes issue with the USGS’s definition of the Lower Neponset River, pointing out that the portion of the river beyond the Baker Dam is not included. “They call it the lower Neponset, but it is really the middle of the Neponset.”)
The results were foul: research concluded a median PCB concentration from the Neponset River of more than 120 times greater than those median concentrations in sediment samples from other rivers across the United States.
From upper stream to lower stream, the concentration of PCBs increased significantly at the sample location after the place where Mother Brook merged into the Neponset. Two peaks of concentration of PCBs were observed in front of the T&H Dam and the Baker Dam.
The USGS also noted that PCBs continue to be released into the river from contaminated soil. The Neponset River Watershed Association estimates that 200 to 300 lbs of PCBs were flushed into the harbor from behind the Baker Dam due to storm damage in 2007 alone. Such realizations have paused the removal of these dams since that kind of heavy demolition could result in the release of even more PCBs.
It’s not all bad news. Since the USGS study, several public agencies have also studied the Neponset. Cooke notes that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection took samples and even found solutions for removing pollutants. However, the association members note that there are “more than 70 known PCB discharge sites in the Neponset River Watershed, and experts agree it is unlikely that one or two property owners would be held liable for the cleanup.”
In search of a larger solution, the DEP has reached out to the US Environmental Protection Agency in Mass, hoping to get parts of the Neponset River placed on the National Priorities List of Superfund sites, a compendium “of sites of national priority among the known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants throughout the United States and its territories.”
The big ask
On June 25 of this year, Gov. Charlie Baker sent an official request asking the EPA in Mass to prioritize the Lower Neponset River.
“We’ve been hoping for this,” Cooke said. “This was the big news that we were excited about.”
Lyons is pleased that the Baker administration is supporting their effort. “It is going to cost a lot of money to clean up that mud,” he added.
Even with a Superfund designation, there’s a long way to go before swim time. The river has to be evaluated according to a Hazard Ranking System, and there will be a 60-day public comment period before the EPA can decide if it will make the cut.
“I think it is likely, but not guaranteed,” Cooke said. “Hopefully in a few more years, we will begin our actual clean-up.”
Lyons is looking forward to a day when all the PCB residue is removed. When that time comes, and only then, does she feel “the river can run freely, and the fish can swim upstream freely again.”
For now, Cooke said it is safe for the public to walk and spend time along the riverbank. As for fishing, you probably want to throw back what you catch.
Hongyu Liu is a journalism student from Beijing, China. He holds a strong passion for photojournalism. Liu is currently an undergraduate student at Emerson College.