At 10:23 yesterday morning on Deer Island, the large valve on the sludge discharge pipe leading into Boston Harbor cranked shut for the last time.
Sludge dumping -- the egregious practice that gave Boston Harbor the reputation of being the dirtiest in the nation -- finally ended, seven days ahead of the deadline ordered by the federal court.
For almost four decades, tons of sludge -- the smelly, gooey, black byproduct of the sewage treatment process, laced with heavy metals and toxic chemicals -- poured daily into Boston Harbor, making the water black and foul- smelling, suffocating bottom-dwelling creatures, contaminating the sediments, depleting the oxygen, and sometimes killing fish. In recent years, the assault had amounted to 70 tons a day.
As a staff member lowered a probe into the 15-foot-deep shaft that houses the valve to test for methane and other dangerous gases, the executive chief of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Paul Levy, donned a yellow mountaineering harness. When he got an all clear, he descended down a metal ladder to do the honors.
"Here we go," Levy shouted up to onlookers who peered over the edge as he began to turn the valve wheel, assisted by a long-time harbor advocate, Lorraine Downey, and the MWRA official in charge of handling the sludge, Eric Buehrens. "We're closing it forever!"
Levy then threaded a heavy chain through the valve wheel and fixed a large padlock in place. With a flourish, he snapped it shut and brandished the key.
For the massive Boston Harbor cleanup project, it marked the first major milestone in a process that began in the mid-80s and will continue into the next century.
Judge A. David Mazzone, the federal judge overseeing the harbor cleanup, in a rare interview, called this "a major event. We've been dumping for generations, and now it is going to stop. On time and under budget."
"Sludge Reaches End of the Line; Boston Harbor Discharge Is Shut Ahead of Deadline," by Dianne Dumanoski, Boston Globe, December 25, 1991.