Nine years on, the agency is making progress cleaning up a harbor that's famous for filth.

James Lebenthal, president of New York's Lebenthal & Co., once summed up his wisdom on winning friends for public finance.

Teach the average person how to love a sewer project, he said. Once you do that, selling bonds for anything else will be easy.

That idea may strike a chord with the officials in charge of undoing the damage caused by one of the worst sewage systems in the country.

Since the first batch of Massachusetts settlers decided that Boston might not be a bad place to live, Boston Harbor has been the unwilling depository of billions of gallons of raw sewage.

During the 1960s and 1970s, experts estimated that a heavy rain would see 450,000,000 gallons of untreated sewage pour into the harbor each day. Environmental scientists said it had become impossible for any species of fish to survive there for long. In 1988, the whole country learned about the mess when Michael Dukakis, then Massachusetts' governor, ran for president and the Republicans threw the issue at him.

But three years before, there was the beginning of at least the hope of better times for the harbor.

In 1985, federal Judge A. David Mazzone ruled that the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority would be responsible for a cleanup, one of the largest and most controversial projects in the nation.

When Mazzone told the MWRA it would be the agency's job to clean up Boston Harbor and provide the Boston metropolitan area with sewer services, the public and even many governmental officials were skeptical.

The history of public projects in Massachusetts has been less than auspicious. In the past, roads were half-built, then delayed; bridges took years longer than expected. In one case, a Boston building was fitted out with steps leading to nowhere.

Cleaning Boston Harbor and stopping the generations-old practice of dumping sewage into the harbor were goals that everyone admitted were admirable, but few believed could be accomplished for under $10 billion.

But now, almost 10 years later, MWRA officials can look out of the agency's Charlestown offices and see a cleaner harbor and a sewage treatment facility that is rapidly nearing completion.

On a recent trip to the Deer island facility, it became clear that the person who may be getting the most satisfaction out of the authority's progress is executive director Douglas B. MacDonald.

MacDonald has been at the helm of the MWRA since 1992, and it takes only a morning tour of Deer Island to appreciate the pride he has in the facility.

The tour is highly recommended, but wear sturdy boots and be prepared for a hike. MacDonald is not prone to slow down for stragglers and apparently enjoys climbing the 14 stories required to get to the top of the Deer Island "digesters."

MacDonald attacks the steps ferociously, and his desire to get the Deer Island facility up and running is equally fierce.

Both MacDonald and the rest of the MWRA staff are anxiously waiting for the start-up of first part of the Deer Island plant later this month.

"The level of excitement around the agency is very high because most of the management challenges over the course of the last year were looking forward to this point," MacDonald said. "Realizing that we have teams of people here at the authority who have worked on different pieces of the program to date, it's exciting to know we're now going to integrate their work into a single effort."

It has not been an easy couple of years for the authority. Last year, Mark S. Ferber, the MWRA's financial adviser for more than 10 years, was dismissed because of an undisclosed contract with Merrill Lynch & Co., one of the authority's senior underwriters.

"There was a period of time when the initials of this agency symbolized trouble with a capital M," MacDonald said. "I think we've got a long way to go before we would say that this agency is held in public esteem and confidence. But at least now there's a change out there."

Part of the change stems from cost revisions that will save ratepayers several billion dollars in construction costs. Another part comes from the authority's ability to keep water and sewer rates stable.

But the specter of the past year and the pressure placed on agency officials because of the problems with their former financial adviser weigh heavily on the authority.

Ferber, now the target of several state and national investigations, and the authority were both tarnished by Ferber's contract with Merrill Lynch.

MacDonald discussed the Ferber situation carefully. As an attorney, he said, he appreciates the need to let investigations play out before saying too much.

"The problem was that if a conflict of interest was created here, people didn't know about it. That's vital. That's why it's been so problematic," he said. "If anything, it's taught people here to keep their eyes open."

Just as the Ferber questions were quieting down, a fire broke out in one of the major tunnels from Deer Island, delaying construction for several months and calling into question the safety of the construction workers involved.

Now the project is moving right along, but MacDonald said he realizes it will still have some tough critics. One is Robert A. Cerasoli, the state's inspector general.

Cerasoli has opposed parts of the MWRA plan since he was a state representative from Quincy, the home of one of the authority's major sludge plants.

Last December, Cerasoli published a report on Deer Island entitled "The MWRA's Support Building Complex on Deer Island: Too Large, Lavish, and Expensive."

In the report, Cerasoli criticized many of the Deer Island offices as being unusually lavish for a publicly funded building.

But a report from KPMG Peat Marwick, a consulting firm hired by the state to make recommendations for future cost cuts, did not say the buildings at Deer Island were overly expensive.

For the most part, the Peat Marwick report said the authority has been successful at keeping the costs of Deer Island in check.

When authority officials did initial estimates on the cost of the cleanup and the Deer Island plant, they came up with a figure around $7 billion.

But favorable interest rates over the past four years and constant cost revisions have lowered the costs of the authority's projects to just over $4.7 billion.

Some of the authority's revisions were praised in the Peat Marwick report, especially those due to the implementation of the combined sewer overflow program.

The combined sewage overflows handle excess water and sewage that is generated system-wide during rainy seasons.

Initially, the authority planned to build a 13-mile, 25-foot wide tunnel beneath Boston that would bring all sewage and waste water to the Deer Island plant for purification.

But the revised combined sewage overflow plan would eliminate the need for the tunnel and deal with the wastewater on a smaller scale.

Officials at the authority said the new plan is a good one, but they are restraining their enthusiasm pending ongoing approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The actual performance of the facilities that have been built since 1990 has been much better than had been anticipated," Michael Dominica, the MWRA's director of facilities development, said earlier this year. "We actually will get a higher level of water quality by spending less money."

The new plan will eliminate any waste overflows into critical swimming and fishing areas, reduce any untreated overflows, and improve several existing facilities.

The one question that was not addressed was the pollution in the nearby Charles River. Dominica said that the MWRA, the EPA, and the Charles River Watershed Authority are working on the problem.

The reduction in estimated costs for the harbor cleanup and the Deer Island plant will also help the authority control rate increases over the next few years, according to other authority sources.

MacDonald said the downward cost revisions address critics who have said the authority is saving money today simply through delay tactics. The combined sewage overflow project is not expected to require funding until 1997 through 1999.

The report also made several suggestions about how the authority could continue to lower costs.

One of the problems with a large project dedicated to sewers or water is the fact that the public can very rarely see the progress being made, MacDonald said.

"Even the most significant improvements that you can deliver to the system, correcting years of neglect or hidden pieces of the system which are unreliable, the home owner's relation to this system is they're still going to have come home and they still flush the same toilet," he said. "You've got to convince people that the overall reliability of the system is something very important for the environment and very important to supporting the prosperous economy in the community for the future."

MacDonald said if he were to give one piece of advice to a community interested in undertaking a project of this size, it would be to be prepared for every possible problem.

"You have to persuade people that you have a sensible plan and that the plan passes many tests," MacDonald said.

The one part of the Deer Island plant that is visible are the digesters, which will be used to separate the sewage and other floatables from the water and help purify the water.

On a clear day, the egg-shaped digesters are visible from most parts of Boston Harbor, and MacDonald said that has also helped move the project forward.

"There's a real link between the digesters as a piece of the plant that protects the harbor and the harbor itself," he said. "It's the flip side of this business of water or sewage infrastructure being invisible. The plant's visible. People are going to know where their sewage is treated, and the digesters are a visible landmark."

MacDonald said he has been approached by some entrepreneurs interested in painting a logo onto the digesters, but said he was not sure that would ever happen.

"We're not pushing that idea," he said. "But it's interesting that there is somebody out there who has seen our digesters and said, 'There it is, the symbol of a new environmentalism.'"

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