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Raw Sewage Infects Charles River

By A. Arif Husain
Opinion Editor

Fecal bacteria levels in the Charles River peaked at more than 12,500 times the safe level for swimming last week, according to an article Sunday in The Boston Globe. The outbreak resulted from a blocked sewer line that clogged and then burst, diverting raw sewage and toilet paper into a storm drain, which leads to the river.

The highest concentration of fecal coliform bacteria was measured at the corner of Memorial Drive and the Larz Anderson Bridge, an area often used by HarvardUniversity and Northeastern University rowing teams. Bacteria levels were 2,500 times the safe level for boating, which is higher than that for swimming.

The break was reported Wednesday of last week by a rower who noticed a foul smell. The pipe was plugged, and as of last Saturday sewage was no longer entering the river.

Kate Bowditch of the Charles River Watershed Association, an independent advocacy group monitoring the situation, said that based on their sampling, the leak did not affect the area of the river used frequently by MIT.

The MIT stretch of the Charles "generally meets state standards for boating during dry weather," Bowditch said. However, even without an accident like the rupture last week, "a storm like [Wednesday's] will cause the river to be polluted for the next two days," she said.

The recurring problem occurs because of the old-fashioned Cambridge plumbing system that combines storm water with untreated sewage. When storm runoff becomes too great for the system to handle - as after a heavy rain - certain designated points, known as combined sewer overflows, permit diluted raw sewage to leak out into the river. There are 11 such overflows in the MIT area.

MIT Crew Director Stuart Schmill '86 said that the frequent leakages have not posed much problem. "It doesn't smell too nice, but unless it's very windy, we don't get splashed that much, so the water doesn't pose much of a health problem," Schmill said. "No one has gotten sick here because of it."

The use of the CSO devices violates the Massachusetts Clean Water Act, Bowditch said. But the Environmental Protection Agency is working closely with Boston and Cambridge authorities to eliminate them.

"It's incredibly expensive," Bowditch said. "It's probably going to be until 2002 before they have successfully eliminated all CSOs."

Last week's contamination was the fourth major such incident this summer, with prior outbreaks observed in Newton and Milford.