While the exact size and impact of the spill remain unknown, researchers at Clean Harbors Environmental Services (CHES) — who were contracted by Massport to test the contamination site — have some insight about its reach. In one evaluation, CHES extracted 3475 gallons of non-aqueous phase liquids (NAPLs), or toxic contamination, from the area; in another, they withdrew 18 cubic yards of "oily absorbents" and four cubic yards of "oily sludge."

However, Swissport refuted those findings last December, in a report that was mandated by Massport (and prepared for the fuel company by the Lowell-based TRC Environmental Corporation). This report is meant to assess damages and spur a quick cleanup after incidents like this one. But Swissport's own analysis claimed that CHES testing methods are "questionable," and that Clean Harbors "greatly overestimate[d] the depth of fuel overlying the recovered water."

"There is currently no continuing presence of significant petroleum [from the Swissport discharge]," reads the aforementioned report, formally known as a Release Notification Form (RNF) and Immediate Response Action (IRA) plan. "It appears that actions taken to date have either temporarily or permanently eliminated the release to the environment. . . . There [is] an absence of obvious acute or readily apparent impacts to fish or humans." (TRC declined to comment for this story; Swissport did not respond to three inquiries.)

Still, the diggers tell a different story. For them, the conditions speak for themselves.

Squirting Clam

FOUL SURF

Boston didn't come to be a clam epicenter overnight. Early Puritan settlers first regarded New England shellfish as merely hog-worthy. But by the early 18th century, colonists were adopting — and putting their own spin on — Native American clam dishes. According to historian Kathy Neustadt, author of Clambake: a History and Celebration of an American Tradition, by the 19th century they'd even become status symbols. There was an "overt connection," writes Neustadt, "between politics in general and the eating of clams."

Boston's famed relationship with clams, however, has also been abusive, as the Harbor is a tough farm to harvest. In the 1930s, beds became so polluted that, in an unprecedented move, authorities required that all shellfish picked from the Harbor be treated at purification plants. By 1985, things had only worsened; with the water around Boston degenerating into some of the foulest surf in America, and triggering massive lawsuits and an ensuing billion-dollar clean-up. According to several career clammers with whom the Phoenix spoke, conditions improved steadily thereafter — until farming was banned around Logan in the wake of September 11.

Diggers legally returned to the airport necklace in 2003 — and were even hailed as an added sheath in the fight against terrorism, due to their presence at odd hours on the beaches around Logan. But the struggles never let up. First there's the overall dwindling clam population — the Harbor has about one-third less harvestable crop than it did 10 years ago, according to DMF. In addition, there's the vulnerability of the Plum Island Shellfish Purification Plant, in Newburyport, which processes and disinfects more than 500 bushels of clams a week, and is the only plant accessible from Boston. Despite being the oldest continually operating American facility of its kind — as well as a critical source of employment for hundreds of commonwealth residents, from clammers and fishermen to testers — Plum Island wound up on the chopping block this February, when Governor Deval Patrick proposed to cut its entire $400,000 budget.

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