Gloucester’s clean harbor: H2O no no’s are in the past


Did you read about Cape Cod’s Big Water Drinking Problem in the Boston Globe magazine this past weekend, the cover story? Oy, complicated.

There’s still time to register for the annual Celebrate the Clean Harbor Swim which will be held at Niles Beach Saturday morning. Swim or raise a toast–there is so much to celebrate.

Swim to celebrate Gloucester’s clean water

Swim to celebrate the moments people help*

Swim to celebrate a history of ongoing conservation

Swim to celebrate the guys on the DPW crews

Before it was Celebrate the Clean Harbor it was… clean it.

Thirteen year old Elinor Doty swam a mile and a half in 29 minutes, ahead of 16 other swimmers in 1979. The race was in tribute to John McPhee, head of Gloucester Sea Scouts. “We tried to get swimmers who knew John McPhee,” said race organizer Jim Doty, Elinor’s father. “I’d like to make it an annual event if I can swing it…”

“Rounding out the field of 17, was 68 year old Sara Robbins, who was surprised by an unexpected visitor during the middle of the race. “The grey harbor seal popped up beside me to show me a two-pound flounder that he had caught,” said Robbins, who has been training a half mile each day for the past two weeks. “I’m not too fast but I get there.” She said she used the side stroke during the whole course.”

Doty came in first place again in 1980 when the swim morphed into the ideal kick off event for Cape Ann’s Year of the Coast. Because of water quality, several parents wouldn’t let their children participate. “And only two are from the Cape Ann YMCA, James Doty notes, which usually supplies more contestants.



Water pollution was rarely mentioned if at all before the Cape Ann Year of the Coast, an undeniable avalanche tipping point. One 1980 article has a picture of Sarah Fraser Robbins, Sarah Evans and Chandler Evans. The 8 year old was ceremoniously passed from boat to boat and then dropped in so three generations could swim across the finish line. In 1981 organizers reminded people that they didn’t need to complete the swim, they could jump in and swim across the finish line in support. I wonder if that tradition was maintained?

1980 swimmers besides the Evans clan and Doty–Gloucester residents, unless otherwise stated: David Hayden (2nd place), Karen Hartley of Dorchester (3rd place), Andy O’Brien of Rockport, Barry Hallett Jr, Darrell Hallett (swam part way alongside his brother), Kay Rubin, Polly Doty of Dedham, Jack Crowley of South Weymouth, Carl Blumenthanl, Chris Lovgren of Gloucester, Stan Luniewicz, Bill Jebb representing Sea Tec, Steve Haskell Sea Tec, Sharon Kishida Sea Tec, Earl Kishida Sea Tec, Jan Childs, Chris Sanders of Rockport, Chris Vonalt of Rockport, and Sam Rugh.

Councilor Carolyn O’Connor led a brief awards ceremony. I love the quip recorded in Laura Meades 1980 sports report Hardy Swimmers Keep Heads High“As they went on, the swimmers shouted encouragement to one another and checked their progress.  “What’s ahead of us?” asked Steve Haskell of SeaTec Inc, a diving firm. “A couple of 8-year olds,” replied SeaTec’s owner, Bill Jebb, swimming beside Haskell.”




 1979 Clean Harbor Swim003


I hope DPW feels proud that their work protected us, Gloucester’s famous harbor, our legacy.



Before the waste water treatment facility was built in 1984, untreated waste (sanitary, storm water, industrial, you name it) was discharged directly into the inner and outer harbor. Gloucester was not alone. Rockport, Essex, Beverly- there were many North Shore stories. I wish I knew the name of every person that did the necessary retrofitting and water treatment labor. They dug up roads, laid pipe, cleaned up messes, dealt with outfalls, extended sewer lines, requested a decontamination shower and changing area (1978) so they wouldn’t have to wash up at home, engineered, mapped, and monitored what was necessary to bring us from a crisis by 1980–and lawsuit– to where we are now in 2016. DPW continues to address storm water pollution, also mandated, and will make next year’s compliance deadline. (Gloucester is not unduly impaired by industrial waste like some other communities that will feel the pinch.) Thanks to Larry Durkin, Environmental Engineer, DPW, and Senator Tarr’s office for pouncing on MBTA’s pesticide spraying.

To paraphrase the famous George M Cohan quote: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my brother thanks you, andI will add that my children thank you, future generations thank you, wildlife thanks you, businesses thank you, truly all of Gloucester thanks you!

**I grabbed material for this post from GDT headlines thanks to   Sawyer Free Library. Newspapers on microfilm are available in the Reference Department. I am not alone in dreaming of the day when Gloucester archives, Gloucester Daily Times, and other essential research are digitized, but I tend to repeat this ongoing plea.

*It’s not one person, event or decade that stands out. There’s an incredible timeline of care. Who would you add? part 2

Water in the headlines this week, followed by a few more past headlines.

Boston Globe -The other Cape’s  Cape Cod’s big drinking problem: When you live on what’s essentially a sandbar, pollution, septic systems and political roadblocks add up to one tough challenge, by Barbara Moran

CNN Study Public Water supply is unsafe for millions of Americans by Susan Scutti

“Though 194 public water supplies with higher-than-recommended chemical concentrations are located in 33 states, three-quarters of the toxic water supplies are in just 13 states: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois.” 


the study itself

Drinking water contamination with poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) poses risks to the developmental, immune, metabolic, and endocrine health of consumers. We present a spatial analysis of 2013–2015 national drinking water PFAS concentrations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (US EPA) third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR3) program.







11 thoughts on “Gloucester’s clean harbor: H2O no no’s are in the past

  1. While Gloucester has done and continues to do a good job keeping it’s harbor clean, there is a LOT of work to do at the Gloucester waste water treatment facility to bring it up to snuff with current national standards, and make our community the good environmental neighbor that we should be. Currently, Gloucester is one of few communities in the entire country permitted to discharge wastewater into the ocean with only primary treatment. All other facilities are required to do secondary treatment on their water that removes nutrients and additional solids from the water, prior to disinfecting and discharging to the ocean. While I applaud the City’s work in the 80’s to build the treatment facility, and in recent years to install separated stormwater systems, Gloucester is still lagging behind the rest of the country as far as how our wastewater is treated

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for all your work and sharing this. I’m very grateful to all those that worked to clean up. I’m also curious to hear what work is left.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Some emails sent in– one question is the mistaken ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’ only a West Coast phrase? Not sure.


  4. quick followup from DPW Director Mike Hale and brief notes I jotted down.

    Gloucester has invested 25 million into plant upgrades in the past 8 years. Our compliance has been very good since. The Clean Water Act has many components and we are managing them all well. To invest 60 million into secondary treatment would cripple the city’s ability to manage improvements to the sewer collection system, waste water pump stations, and storm water systems. Add the recent 40 million in CSO (ongoing since 1990) and 30 million in water system investments and residents and rate payers of Gloucester will be paying these debts for the next two decades. There is no unwillingness to make additional improvements, it is simply about our ability to pay for these investments.


  5. The sewage came from the ‘Bubbler’. The Bubbler was the sewage outfall pipe that dumped raw untreated sewage right into the center of the harbor on western side of the main channel between Fresh Water Cove and Mussel Point. If you drove over it in a boat, the water color would change to a brownish hue, and the smell told you everything you need to know. A S or SW wind would make most of the harbor off limits to swimming or other water sports. A west wind would blow it over towards Eastern Point and Niles Beach, and a N or NE wind would blow it out of the harbor and make it somebody else’s problem, hence the saying “Manchester by the Sea, Gloucester by the smell”.

    There was also pogie oil and cooking oil all over the harbor that coated everything it touched – even the seaweed. It smelled disgusting, and was this sticky whitish/tan oil/paste that floated around the harbor in a slick when the water was warm. It would coagulate when the water became colder and form sandy grease balls along the shore from washing in and being rolled by wave action. It used to sick to the stone of the sea walls at the high water line, and would form a collar around wooden pilings around the harbor. It was ever-present.

    It was so bad in 78 or 79, that my mother enlisted me (aged 11 or 12) to help her scrape the stuff off of our seawall with a putty knife to fill a bucket that she brought to the Mayors office. She walked right in and left the bucket on the reception desk, telling Mayor Alper, “If I have to live with this, so don’t you” as she left. Leo was not happy as I recall.

    I vividly remember multitudes of tuna heads floating around with the air bladder still attached. I guess they would just gut the tunas on the wharves when they landed the fish and everything would just go back into the harbor. On a hot August day like today, the stench from one tuna head was unbearable, but they were everywhere. As kids, we would see one floating and poke the bladder with a stick to pop it – and that smell was something that sticks with you for a lifetime.

    Also the amount of flotsam and jetsam was just out of control – wood fish crates, pallets, glass bottles, fish guts and heads, dead birds, cardboard milk cartons, nets, cigarette butts galore and trash of all kinds littered the shoreline around the harbor.

    After the greasy pole in June, we would find clumps of the grease that was used, and yes it was petroleum grease – the blue kind you use on boat trailer axels.

    I also recall that Smith Cove seemed to be constantly covered with a slick of fuel oil during the Summer and smelled of diesel.

    People who didn’t witness it don’t realize how bad it was, and the water quality today is quantum leaps from what it was.


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