BOSTON -- One of the major milestones in the construction of the Deer Island sewage treatment plant in Boston Harbor is expected to be reached by late next month.

The initial flow of sewage through the plant's primary treatment facility will take place either on Jan. 18 or Jan. 25, according to executives at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

The plant, largely financed through authority revenue bonds secured by water and sewer rates, didn't open as expected in late fall. The authority's executive director, Douglas B. MacDonald, said the reason was the problems encountered in constructing the plant's disinfectant facility, difficulties outlined in the authority's report to Judge David Mazzone of U.S. district court.

The authority is required to file a monthly report with the judge on the progress of its projects. After Mazzone receives the report, he responds with a letter to the authority voicing his concerns and giving his approval or dissent.

This month's letter to the judge said that 97% of the necessary construction was completed at the primary treatment facility and that 78% of the testing had been completed.

The report also said that a considerable amount of work needs to be done to complete the disinfectant area of the primary treatment facility.

"I am concerned about the progress in this area, given that the MWRA's target date to begin operation of the new [plant] is late fall," the judge wrote.

"We are almost done with the testing at the disinfectant facility," MacDonald said. "Our engineers are working on a to-do list that has several hundred items on it. But that list is finite, and I think we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel."

The Deer Island plant and the cleanup of the Boston Harbor have been proceeding since the mid-1980s when Mazzone ordered the authority to be the state's fiscal overseer and project manager.

The cleanup was initially expected to cost more than $7 billion, but cost-cutting and low interest rates for the authority's bonds have lowered the tab to about $4.7 billion.

The authority estimates that work on the Deer Island project and the Boston Harbor cleanup will be finished in 1999.

The opening of the primary treatment plant is the second major step in the cleanup. The first occurred in 1991, when the authority stopped the practice of pouring sludge and sewage directly into the Boston Harbor. Currently, the authority is producing fertilizer pellets with the waste at several processing plants across the state.

By the time both the primary and secondary treatment plants are fully functional, 90% of all waste will be removed from the water in the Boston Harbor.

Even with only the primary treatment plant on-line, MacDonald said, the difference in the water quality in the harbor will be noticeable and many kinds of fish should return to the harbor.

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