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New Legislative Bill Drifts Attention to Mystic River’s Longstanding Problems

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By Petros N. Kasfikis

SOMERVILLE, Mass. - While Mystic River has been plunging in environmental rankings for 10 consecutive years, a newly introduced bill seeks to set the groundwork for its environmental restoration.

The bill, which has made its way to the House Ways and Means Committee, provisions the creation of a Mystic River Water Quality Commission.

If the bill passes, the commission would be charged with collecting data, conducting studies for the water condition, and recommending solutions accompanied with an estimation of the approximate cost.

State Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), who introduced the bill, said in an interview at her office that the legislative proposal emulates the successful formula that achieved to transform Charles River from one of the most polluted rivers to a national environmental success.

"It is very similar to the legislation that a number of years ago created a Charles River Water Quality Commission and I think that is widely acknowledged to be a success," Provost explained.

Since the Environmental Protection Agency introduced the grade system in 2006, the Mystic has been consistently receiving a D.The department justified the decision by saying that the river met the swimming standards only 46 percent of the time.

EkOngKar Khalsa, the executive director of the Mystic River Association, said that the grade is not only relative to the water quality of the main body, but also to that of the various tributaries and streams.

"While there are some areas where water quality is great and in fact you can swim safely, there are other areas, where municipal pipes discharge high levels of bacteria contamination," Khalsa explained. "This in combination with the constant leak of sewage contamination cause us to have a low grade."

Industrial legacy, outdated municipal infrastructure, and the development model of the cities and towns alongside the riverbanks are among the main reasons that have contributed to the pollution of the Mystic.

While industrial operations were interrupted in the early 20th century, pollution from the various hazardous materials still survives in our days on the soil sediments of the river.

But environmental degradation has not stopped since the old days, and cities and towns continue to burden the river day by day.

Most municipalities lack the necessary resources for maintaining and renovating their drain system. As a result, sewer leaks are often and end up in to the water.

In addition, the watershed communities are among the most densely developed and impervious areas of the state. In Somerville, for example, 65 percent of the entire land is tightly sealed; a fact that gives place to another environmental challenge: storm water pollution.

"I think most of us don't think rain as a source of pollution. When it falls from the sky, it is beautiful water," Khalsa noticed. "Yet when it runs through these very densely developed cities, it becomes a source of pollution because it is cleaning the cities from all the mess that we dropped on the streets."

Part of the challenges that the Mystic faces is the fact that the river cover a wide spread area, which includes many different communities and tributaries.

Provost said that the government has failed until now to formulate a central and comprehensive plan, which would embrace the river as a whole.

She believes that the bill would achieve to bring for the fist time all the different stakeholders together by including bipartisan representation and granting membership to all the different cities and towns.

"A lot of communities may regard their own little part. So, there has not been a unifying factor," Provost explained. "One of the things that I am trying to do with this bill is to create a unified body that represents different parts of the Mystic Watershed, but once to look at the river as a whole."

But environmental activists assess the bill as a first steppingstone, which would provide only the basis for taking real action and measures towards improving the condition of the river.

"I think it is certainly going to be the beginning. To really make a difference in terms of water quality in the Mystic would require effort by a lot of people. And that work would cost a lot of money," Khalsa explained.

Provost, however, appears optimistic and believes that it is feasible to find the necessary funds for cleaning the river.

"While some kinds of clean up would require funding, there is always a potential funding source when polluters are fined. This creates a fund out of which restorative work can be done," Provost emphasized.