Like our patriot forefathers, aggrieved Bostonians might have to throw something into the harbor — only this time, it's snow.
Boston and several other communities in Massachusetts have gotten permission to dump excess snow into moving bodies of water, despite its impact on the environment.
The coastal town of Marblehead, roughly 16 miles northeast of Boston, has already started dumping snow into its harbor.
“We now have the snowiest month on record, beating the 1978 record for the most snow on the ground that Boston’s ever seen,” Mayor Marty Walsh said at a news conference Monday night.
Snow removal typically consists of plowing the buildup to the roadside and salting those streets with sodium chloride to prevent freezing and improve grip.
When that’s not enough, trucks lug the snow into large, public spaces, such as fields or parking lots, called snow farms. If necessary, tractors will drop piles of snow into melters to clear more room.
Sometimes, if even that’s not enough, cities like Boston look toward the water. But this method is largely frowned upon throughout the country because of contamination risks. Snow can be filled with pollutants such as motor oil, salt and garbage.
Bonnie McGilpin, the press secretary for Walsh, confirmed that the city is considering discarding the snow in Boston Harbor, but said she hopes this won't be necessary.
“It’s a last-resort option,” McGilpin told Yahoo News. “Last night, two of Boston’s snow farms were melted, so that increased the city’s capacity to haul snow into those farms. That gives us more space, so hopefully we won’t have to go to the harbor.”
Spokesman Peter Judge of the state’s emergency operations center told Yahoo News that Lowell, Lawrence and some North Shore communties are applying for emergency waivers to dump the snow.
Marblehead started dumping snow removed from public streets and property into its harbor a few nights ago, according to town administrator John McGinn.
“We’ve had in excess of 70 inches of snow in the past three weeks,” he told Yahoo News. “We have a historic district with very narrow streets and homes that are close together. We don’t have the luxury of any snow farms.”
He said the local board approved a local snow emergency and that it has reported its actions to all of the appropriate authorities, including the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
Dumping snow in water used to be fairly commonplace until municipalities started to ban or challenge it. Finally, a 1997 Massachusetts law made it illegal to dump anything — including snow — into bodies of still water. It’s less risky for running water but still not preferable.
John Lipscomb, a spokesman for New York-based environmental nonprofit Riverkeeper, says he does not want to criticize the “heroic” effort of cities to remove the snow but insists there must be another way.
“Visualize in your mind's eye what the streets of a city looks like after the snow melts, before the street cleaners come, that you would never for a minute consider dumping in the harbor,” he told Yahoo News. “The fact that it’s camouflaged does not change the final result.”
Lipscomb thinks towns dealing with excess snow should open more snow farms. If there is no more room nearby, he says, they should drive farther away until more space is found — even if it takes more trucks and money.
In coastal cities, such as New York and Boston, the surrounding water has salt, so it's not as bad as it is for areas in the middle of the country. Discarding salt into freshwater systems can harm creatures that are not necessarily tolerant of it, Lipscomb said.
“I don’t want to seem critical of the tremendous effort of what they are doing,” he said. “Nonetheless, we can’t solve one problem by creating another.”
Former marine science teacher Bruce Berman of advocacy group, Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, says the region raised about $5 billion to clean Boston Harbor, but says that he would support dumping if no other option is available.
“I understand people’s concerns for this. Nobody loves and cares for the harbor more than I do,” he said to Yahoo News. “We only do this when there are extraordinary conditions, and I think we’re facing extraordinary conditions right now.”
Berman says public safety should be the utmost priority, adding that Boston has made great strides in protecting the harbor in recent years.
“Twenty-five years ago, we were dumping 250 million [gallons] of raw waste into the harbor,” he said, for context. “Today, after an extraordinary snowstorm, we’re putting some snow in.”