Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

Preservation

Education Themes: Science & Technology

Water Quality

  • In the 1980s, Boston Harbor was considered one of the most polluted in the country. Since then, however, the Deer Island water treatment plant and clean-up efforts have led to a remarkable turnaround and the water quality is significantly improved. Plant and animal life, particularly on the sea floor, has rebounded and biodiversity is flourishing.
  • The Massachusetts Water Resource Authority's (MWRA) water treatment facility on Deer Island is the 2nd largest in the United States and has played a large role cleaning up Boston Harbor.
  • 370 million gallons of sludge—enough to fill the Prudential building 3 times—passes through the MWRA's Deer Island facility each day.

Lighthouse Technology & Use

  • Little Brewster is home to Boston Light, the oldest light station in the country, dating back to 1716.
  • The lighthouse uses a 2nd order Fresnel lens consisting of 336 individual prisms weighing 4,000 pounds. With this lens, the lighthouse's single 1,000 watt bulb is magnified to 20 million candlepower and is visible for 27 miles.
  • In addition to being an active light station, today Little Brewster is an active weather station for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Air Quality

The Boston Harbor Islands are in a class II area as defined by the Clean Air Act. The state may permit a moderate amount of new air pollution (sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides) as long as neither national ambient air quality standards nor the maximum allowable increases (increments) over established baseline concentrations are exceeded. The islands are part of the Boston Metropolitan Air Quality Region within which there are several large stationary and mobile sources of contaminants, including Mystic and Salem Generating Stations. Air quality in this region is also affected by air pollution transported into the region. The Boston Metropolitan Air Quality Region does not meet EPA standards for ozone or carbon monoxide.

The major pollutants originating from the park are boat emissions (primary hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides) and particulates, most of which are generated during the summer months. A variety of particulates (salt from seawater, diatoms and other plankton, silt and clay particles from erosion and wave action) are produced as part of natural processes in the marine environment. Minor additional amounts of particulates are produced by human activities on the islands. No monitoring of air quality or visibility is conducted at the park, and there is no assessment of air quality–related impacts on island resources. The state Department of Environmental Protection monitors air quality in the region. The National Park Service does monitor ozone and acid deposition at Cape Cod National Seashore 60 miles to the southeast of Boston.

 

The Boston Harbor Islands are in a class II area as defined by the Clean Air Act. The state may permit a moderate amount of new air pollution (sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides) as long as neither national ambient air quality standards nor the maximum allowable increases (increments) over established baseline concentrations are exceeded. The islands are part of the Boston Metropolitan Air Quality Region within which there are several large stationary and mobile sources of contaminants, including Mystic and Salem Generating Stations. Air quality in this region is also affected by air pollution transported into the region. The Boston Metropolitan Air Quality Region does not meet EPA standards for ozone or carbon monoxide.



The major pollutants originating from the park are boat emissions (primary hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides) and particulates, most of which are generated during the summer months. A variety of particulates (salt from seawater, diatoms and other plankton, silt and clay particles from erosion and wave action) are produced as part of natural processes in the marine environment. Minor additional amounts of particulates are produced by human activities on the islands. No monitoring of air quality or visibility is conducted at the park, and there is no assessment of air quality–related impacts on island resources. The state Department of Environmental Protection monitors air quality in the region. The National Park Service does monitor ozone and acid deposition at Cape Cod National Seashore 60 miles to the southeast of Boston.

Donations & Fundraising

The Boston Harbor Islands Partnership recognizes that the park requires funds from philanthropic sources for park operations and capital improvements, and that the Island Alliance, a member of the Partnership, has been established to raise such funds.

Fund raising is carried out in support of the park's general management plan and strategic plan. The Partnership reviews and approves advertising, promotional, and marketing materials associated with corporate donations for appropriateness and accuracy.

Water Quality

A Water Resources Scoping Report was prepared by the National Park Service Water Resources Division in 2002 in order to assist the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership in identifying and understanding water-related issues relevant to the management of the national park area. It describes the hydrologic environment of the park and discusses water-related management issues. The report was accepted and the recommendations endorsed by unanimous vote of the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership on December 17, 2002.

The final section of the report (Considerations for Future Actions) provides the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership with suggestions for future action:

  • endorse and support Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s (MWRA) harbor-wide water quality monitoring efforts and support collaboration with the pending NPS “vital signs” monitoring program;
  • endorse further erosion research and monitoring and the development of potential mitigation alternatives;
  • consider additional intertidal zone inventory and research activities;
  • enhance water and wastewater infrastructure planning;
  • continue Mass. Department of Conservation & Recreation recreational water quality monitoring within the Boston Harbor Islands national park area;
  • assess needs and establish priorities to complete necessary environmental audits;
  • endorse The Trustees Of Reservations wetlands restoration activities / support actions to identify other potential restoration activities;
  • enhance awareness of invasive species issues and concerns;
  • facilitate the exchange of additional sensitive resource information for incorporation into spill contingency planning activities;
  • commission a study to evaluate maintenance needs of sea walls and rip-rap and to determine the impact of these structures on geomorphic processes;
  • incorporate water-related recommendations into the Boston Harbor Islands national park area strategic plan.

Renewable Energy on the Islands

Solar Electric Power

The most prominent example of solar power in use is at the newly constructed Visitor Center on Spectacle Island. The building is oriented with a roofline facing south so a solar electric (photovoltaic) system could be installed with maximum solar gain. These photovoltaic panels produce enough energy to keep a small fleet of electric vehicles operational on the island as well as to send clean electricity to the electric utility company's power grid for use throughout the area.

There are several smaller photovoltaic installations on a few other islands. These are called "remote" or "stand alone" systems because they are not connected to the grid and have battery packs that store the electricity produced from the sun. Peddocks Island has had one of these systems since the mid-1990s.

The harbor islands are an excellent location for solar power because the low tree cover and flat areas between the islands allow for maximum duration of direct sunlight without shading. Several additional locations have been studied for photovoltaic systems that could be connected to the electric power grid. If these get installed they would produce enough energy to supply electricity to approximately 500 homes per year.

 

Wind Turbines

Depending on which island you visit, you may be able to see a wind turbine on the mainland at Wind Mill (Pemberton) Point in Hull. This single turbine produces power for all the streetlights in town, the equivalent of about 200 homes each year. This elegant machine has been so successful that a second, larger turbine is being planned for another part of town. That machine will produce enough energy to offset the electricity use of about 500 homes per year.

The area of the harbor along the coast has high average wind speeds, making it a prime location for wind power. Like the photovoltaic system, potential sites for additional wind turbines have been studied and are in the early planning stages.

Hydroturbines
On a boat ride out of the inner harbor you might notice the large egg-shaped containers of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) wastewater treatment plant on Deer Island. This facility, the second largest in the United States, uses the same amount of electricity as more than 2,000 homes each year. Using a hydroturbine, however, the facility produces 10 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. The hydroturbine is installed in the outfall tunnel where large quantities of treated wastewater are discharged into the ocean. It turns as water is pushed out, generating electricity.

Bioenergy

In addition to natural resources such as the sun and wind, organic materials including human-generated waste are also sources of renewable energy. The Deer Island facility uses methane, a byproduct of the treatment process, to power a steam turbine generator. This digester gas is burned to heat water into steam. The steam is funneled through a turbine, which turns the generator and produces electricity. This produces enough electricity to power over 1,000 homes each year, about half of the electricity used at the facility. The steam also produces heat, which is piped throughout the facility, eliminating the need for additional heating for all but about two months of the year. The steam turbine generator and hydroturbine save the MWRA - and ratepayers - over $6 million annually in electricity and fuel costs.

Renewable Energy: What? Why?

What is Renewable Energy?

Our use of energy and its supply has become a global issue. As you visit and view the Boston Harbor Islands, it is evident that these sites are prime locations where we can harvest energy provided by the natural environment. Light from the sun can be harvested into electrical energy using solar cells. Wind in the air can be harnessed by using wind turbines. The waves and tides in the surrounding waters can generate electricity through hydroturbines. Waste from the nearby treatment plant can be used to produce energy. These sources of energy, which ultimately come from the sun, are all renewable, meaning that they are relatively unlimited in quantity or can be replenished quickly and easily. They are at work in daily operations around the harbor and are helping to eliminate air and water pollution, slow down the process of global warming caused by burning fossil fuels, and lower our dependence on imported oil.

 
Why Is Renewable Energy Important?

Recent spikes in the price of crude oil, and thus higher gasoline and fuel oil prices, have brought renewable energy into the news. Economic reasons, however, are only part of the reason to focus on renewable energy.

Fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, propane and others are used to produce gasoline and electricity. While demand for fossil fuels is increasing globally, there is a limited supply of them. In fact, many analysts believe that oil production will peak worldwide in the next few decades and then begin to decline. An increase in demand over supply will increase the cost, as will the mere threat of an oil shortage. As consumers, our dependence on oil makes us more vulnerable to price fluctuations and potential energy shortages.

Fossil fuels also have a significant impact on the environment. They produce emissions such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide that are the leading cause of air pollution and global climate change.

Renewable energy such as solar, wind and waterpower represents a clean alternative to conventional energy. They produce no emissions so air and water quality remain high. Global climate patterns are not impacted. The sources are abundant and replenishable, renewing themselves with the rising of the sun or the ebb and flow of the tides. At the Boston Harbor Islands national park area, we are committed to preserving the natural resources of the area and setting a model for using those resources responsibly.

Environmental Factors

The Boston Harbor Islands have a humid maritime climate that supports an assemblage of plants and animals typical of coastal New England. The climate of the islands offers a particular attraction to visitors when hot, humid weather dominates the region. The modulating effect of surrounding waters typically produces significantly cooler temperatures in contrast with the city and its suburbs. Inversely, winter temperatures on the islands are warmer than those of mainland sites. The Boston Harbor Islands are in a Class II Area as defined by the Clean Air Act. Natural coastal processes, especially northeast storms, continue to reshape the island landforms.

Although the waters of Boston Harbor are not included within the park boundary, they wash the island shores with twice-daily tides. The natural watershed around Boston Harbor extends as far west as Hopkinton, Massachusetts, 25 miles inland. Water also enters the harbor from the Quabbin Reservoir about 65 miles to the west, which supplies potable water to Boston and 47 surrounding communities. Surface water on the islands is rather limited. Perennial ponds are found on Thompson Island and the Worlds End peninsula, and freshwater marshes are found on Long, Peddocks, and Middle Brewster islands, and Worlds End.

Today, Boston Harbor is vastly cleaner than it had been for decades. As is typical of many coastal areas near major metropolitan centers, the harbor had been used for waste disposal since colonial times. Sewage from 43 municipalities now undergoes state-of-the-art primary and secondary treatment at Deer Island. Sludge is removed and the effluent is disinfected and dechlorinated and is ready to be discharged through a 9.5-mile outfall tunnel. The effluent is mixed with the deep waters of Massachusetts Bay.