UMass Boston Professors Juanita Urban-Rich and Michael Shiaris have been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency New England for their work with a panel that monitors microbes and pollution in Massachusetts Bay.
Urban-Rich and Shiaris received the 2017 Environmental Merit Award for their work with the Outfall Monitoring Science Advisory Panel (OMSAP), which monitors the bay to ensure the safety of the people, flora, and fauna that live in and around it.
OMSAP, an independent group of scientists, was established after the construction of the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant. When it was built more than 20 years ago, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority facility was the largest wastewater treatment system in the United States. The facility’s iconic egg-shaped “digesters” are visible on the approach to Logan Airport.
But ecologists and municipalities were concerned when Deer Island came online. The system uses a nine-mile outfall pipe buried underneath the bedrock in the Atlantic Ocean, which discharges treated wastewater back out into Massachusetts Bay at a rate of 320 million gallons per day.
The new outfall pipe was intended to redirect wastewater away from Boston Harbor, but no one wanted to see the health of the Massachusetts Bay suffer as a result. OMSAP was created to ensure that the environment of the bay would not be negatively impacted by the outfall pipe.
Urban-Rich studies zooplankton and the impact on the food web. Shiaris studies microbial ecology. Each OMSAP scientist brings a different area of expertise to the panel, whether in hydrology, chemistry, biology, or geology.
“This is a collective group, working together towards a goal,” Urban-Rich said. “The business side listened to the scientists about when it was time to sound an alarm.”
This spirit of collaboration has led to an enormously successful two-decade partnership.
“The Outfall Monitoring Science Advisory Panel was critical to the success of the Boston Harbor cleanup and recovery,” EPA New England said in a statement. “Over the last 18 years, this panel has held the MWRA's feet to the fire to ensure permit requirements were met and that the recovery of Boston Harbor was not accomplished at the expense of Massachusetts Bay.”
Many of the community’s worst fears about the impact of the outfall pipe did not come to pass, and the impact on the Boston Harbor has been transformative.
“The visibility is better. The chemistry is better,” Shiaris said. “Swimming was forbidden for almost the entire inner harbor, and now you can swim at Carson Beach.”
The scientists on the panel all work on a pro-bono basis. Shiaris says he is proud to be a part of the team.
“We do this as a service to our community and to our state,” he said.