State, Corcoran duel in "court of public opinion" over odor control

It had to happen sooner or later. The bitterly opposed MWRA and Corcoran Jennison Companies and their hired engineers argued their cases in an ad hoc people's court last Thursday, temporarily interrupting the community planning process for Columbia Point.

"We find ourselves almost in a defensive mode," said the MWRA's executive director Fred Laskey, after presenting the authority's design for an odor control facility at the top of a 18 million gallon storage tunnel near Carson's Beach and the Bayside Expo Center, owned by Corcoran. The tunnel was built to temporarily store storm water that mixes with a small percentage of raw sewage during heavy rain events, after which it is sent to Deer Island for treatment. Corcoran has been mounting a public information campaign to discredit the MWRA's ability to control the stink.

"Over time the potential for odor generation will go up," argued Mike Lannan of Tech Environmental, a specialist hired by Corcoran Jennison.

The crux of the argument is not over the high tech filtration systems. On that, both sides agree. And the MWRA agreed to put the facility, as it is designed, underground if Corcoran would pay half of the $3.3 million cost of doing so.

But Corcoran first wants to shrink the facility down from two filtration units to one, and thus put it underground at a lower cost. and they don't want to pay for it.

Unfortunately, no amount of PowerPoint slides, diagrams or emphatic talk could sway the court of public opinion, in this case the Columbia Point Master Plan Task Force which met Dec. 18.

"I don't know what either of you are talking about," said task force chair Don Walsh. "If Corcoran really believes that this is going to stink, why wouldn't you go to court?"

"They're going to the court of public opinion instead of a legal one and it's scaring people," commented Paul Nutting.

Which put Corcoran in a difficult predicament, public opinion-wise.

"You're right, it's the court of public opinion. If people don't care about it it's going to get built," was Lannan's response.

"We are spending $500 million to make it the cleanest urban beach in the country. It's very difficult to negotiate with someone who won't negotiate," said Laskey. "I think Don Walsh hit the nail on the head. If you want to challenge us then take us to court."

Walsh soon ended the meeting, effectively giving the two sides no judgment, a technical draw.

The MWRA did get static from a bevy of Harbor Point residents in the room who were recently surprised to discover the odor control project nearby. Some feared health threats, but were put at ease when both engineers agreed that no data exists to support that idea.

"There will be no odor from this, no health effect from it," said Emile Hamwey, the MWRA's engineer, in an attempt at a closing argument. "The reason I can say that unequivocally is because the standards have been developed by science. The use of activated carbon has evolved over the years. The technology being applied here is the latest in the state of the art of the use of carbon. There's no speculation because we are using tried and true technology."

"Still we are not convinced because we have two different sides right now," said Orlando Perilla, director of the Harbor Point Task Force. "Is this going to affect our community 10 years down the road? We are not satisfied."

But on the way out, Laskey and Perilla shook hands as Laskey offered to provide any information needed.