“If we don’t get this right, buildings collapse, and my constituents lose their homes,” Walz says. As she sees it, the legislature already told the DEP to deal with this issue back in 1983.
Together we won’t
The February SJC ruling requires the DEP to regulate, through a licensing process, development on all those landlocked tidelands. But the Patrick administration doesn’t want to. Hence its new bill, which would legalize what the SJC just ruled illegal — that is, to change the law to include the vast exemptions the DEP had tried to grant on its own.
Patrick’s bill is a disappointment to some who had hoped for more aggressive environmental enforcement from the first Democratic governor to come along since the DEP dropped the ball in 1990.
“The process has worked very well over the years,” said Patrick’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Ian Bowles, testifying to the joint committee on environment, natural resources, and agriculture last week. The governor’s bill, Bowles testified, would “restore the status quo.”
Not good enough, some say. “I don’t understand why what we’re hearing now is ‘status quo’ from an administration that ran on the promise of change,” says Denise Provost, state rep from Somerville.
Provost and others argue that the only beneficiaries of the status quo are developers — many of whom are strongly supporting Patrick’s bill. She and nine other legislators in the area testified against the bill, and at least two members of the committee openly sided with them. William Brownsberger, for one, said that were he not on the committee, he would be testifying with the others. And Mike Moran, whose Brighton district will host the bulk of Harvard’s expansion, was blunt: “To ask us to give away our oversight authority — our seat at the table, as it were — I think we’d be crazy to do that,” he said during the hearing.
Those skeptical legislators were not mollified by the attitudes of Bowles and other testifying administration officials, who seemed to find the very notion of DEP interest in filled tidelands preposterous — even laughable.
While testifying, Bowles mocked the notion that the DEP should be regulating tidelands under the Prudential Center, the Boston Herald Building, or centerfield at Fenway Park. He claimed that the only public interest the legislature intended to protect in its 1983 law was public access to the waterfront, primarily for the classic purposes of fishing, fowling, and navigation. Groundwater issues, he said, were already being handled by local regulators. Some large development projects are also reviewed by the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act Office, although that entity has no licensing power, and thus not much teeth, critics argue.
And DEP acting commissioner Arleen O’Donnell testified that the only “public benefit” her staff could think of to regulate on landlocked filled tidelands was, “I don’t know, maybe sidewalks” — for better access.
As one representative complains, the administration’s argument assumes that the legislature was, and is, a bunch of idiots — that they must have thought there was a harbor in the South End, for instance, when they very specifically defined the 1983 law to include 4000 acres far from any shoreline. The law does not specify “access” as the only environmental issue at stake. And Boston’s groundwater concerns were certainly on their minds at the time — the problem has been well-known since at least 1929, when the Boston Public Library spent $200,000, a fortune at the time — on underpinning. And the city was concerned enough to install observation wells throughout the city in the 1930s to monitor the levels, says Elliott Laffer, executive director of the Boston Groundwater Trust.