The positive impacts that large-scale remediation initiatives can have on polluted, environmentally degraded areas are both obvious and multifaceted.
But what’s lesser known is the exact economic viability in investing in such initiatives. A new first-of-its-kind study, published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, finds that the return on investment when embarking on cleanup projects isn’t just high — it can be astronomical.
In the study, researchers zeroed in on the Boston Harbor — site of a certain tea-based protest and, later, decades of unchecked industrial pollution and raw sewage outflow. By the late 19th century, the harbor was deemed off limits to swimmers and had begun to earn its decades-long reputation as the “dirtiest harbor in America.” Today, the historic natural harbor is considered a “Great American Jewel” and an-all around environmental success story per the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority. And, yes, on most days it’s completely safe to take a refreshing dip in the bay, which not too long ago was mainly associated with gunk, goo and gnarly bacterial infections.
Most of the remediation work, as mandated by 1986's court-ordered Boston Harbor Cleanup project, focused on how and where sewage and other pollutants are dealt with, with an emphasis on the expansion and modernization of the Deer Island treatment facility, which handles a bulk of the waste flushed by Bostonians on a daily basis.
This dramatic turnaround, of course, required a significant amount of time and money — 20-some years and nearly $5 billion in taxpayer dollars, to be exact. But as lead author, Dr. Di Jin, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts, details in the study, the investment was all worth it — and then some. Today, the current ecosystem value of the cleaned-up harbor is estimated to be between $30 and $100 billion.
Jin and his colleagues note in their uniquely retrospective analysis that the cleanup project was never expected to be cost-effective when launched in the 1980s.
The creation of the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant, the second largest sewage treatment facility in the U.S., was instrumental in saving Boston Harbor. (Photo: EandJsFilmCrew [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
“Most environmental cleanup cost-benefit analyses are for proposed future projects, using projected benefits rather than known outcomes," says Jin. "Decision makers consider the value of an area at the time of proposal, when the area is most polluted, rather than the value an unpolluted area could have post-cleanup.”
While the process may have been drawn-out and costly, the study proves that massive cleanup efforts can ultimately be preferable, from an ROI standpoint, to the industrial and residential development projects often favored above ecosystem restoration and conservation initiatives in highly polluted areas that, like the Boston Harbor, have been all but written off.
Again, Jin and his colleagues stress the importance of analyzing a polluted area’s environmental value post-cleanup instead of just pre-cleanup, which is typically the standard approach.
“The Boston Harbor cleanup led to a significant increase in private investment, and economic growth along the waterfront has outpaced the city's overall rate of increase," explains Jin. “This shows that we need to give more consideration to ecosystem service benefits when evaluating policy options.”
Flounder, no longer floundering
While once an object of shame and frustration, the dramatically improved Boston Harbor — specifically its inner harbor — is now home to a flurry of harbor-sensitive development, recreational activities and, perhaps most importantly, flourishing marine life.
On that note, one of the most significant developments from a marine life recovery standpoint is the recently announced tumor-free status of the harbor’s winter flounder population.
The winter flounder's disease-free rebound is emblematic of Boston Harbor's overall recovery from decades of environmental degradation. (Photo: David Brossard [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
Per a recent study also conducted by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, in the mid 1980s — when the cleanup efforts in the harbor first kicked off — more than three-quarters of the bottom-feeding species caught in the harbor showed signs of liver disease, including cancerous tumors, following decades of pollution. Since 2004, no tumors have been detected and the fish themselves can be found in greater abundance.
"The people of Massachusetts spent billions of dollars to reclaim their harbor, and it worked," Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium that overlooks Boston Harbor, tells the Associated Press.
The Boston Harbor isn’t the only city-defining waterway that’s experienced a remarkable turnaround in recent years. The River Thames in London, not too long ago considered "biologically dead," and the Seine in Paris are two prominent examples. The latter river is current being treated to a 1 billion euro cleanup effort so that it can be swimmable by 2024 — just in time for the Summer Olympics.
"Pollution control and cleanup is a common challenge facing many urban harbors around the world," says Jin of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “We hope that our study will provide useful information to decision makers and the public facing similar decisions on the viability of ecosystem restoration projects.”