Blue-Green Algae Pollutes Charles River: Is Beautifying Boston’s Esplanade Endangering the Water?

[NOTE: Dug this up in my archives…was written in 2007 but not published anywhere.]

“I love that dirty water. Oh oh Boston you’re my home.”

The hit 1960s Standells song “Dirty Water” is a pseudo anthem sung on nights of victory at Fenway Park, made famous more recently by the punk band Dropkick Murphys. But fans of the Red Sox may croon that they love the dirty water without realizing that baseball may be one of the factors that actually contaminates the Charles River.

Because of its long-time pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local governments have been working to clean up the Charles River. Millions of dollars have been spent over the past 12 years to clean up much of the sewage and industrial waste. Since 1995, the EPA has moved up the rating on the river’s quality from a D to B-plus last summer, although it is still not fit for swimming. “We’ve made huge progress cleaning up the Charles, especially in terms of removing sewage and other sources of bacteria, but for the past two summers, toxic algae blooms have raised concerns about public safety,” said Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

Organizations, however, are overlooking the fact that some of their beautification projects are polluting the river on a different level. Fertilizers and fungicides applied to Teddy Ebersol’s Red Sox Fields may be encouraging yet another danger: blue-green algae. Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, thrive in warm water that is rich in nutrients. When they die, the algae create a toxin that can cause skin rashes or other irritation. Ingestion of the toxin can lead to serious liver and nervous system damage.

Civic environmental protection groups such as Friends of the White Geese are claiming that fungicides and use of fertilizers on Ebersol Fields were what caused the algal bloom.

Fungus Problems at Ebersol Fields

Ebersol Fields was named after Teddy Ebersol, a young Red Sox fan who died in a plane crash. The park consists of two baseball/ softball diamonds, youth soccer fields, and a regulation-sized soccer field. It was a 1.8 million dollar renewal project, re-opening to the public in 2006 and part of the master plan in beautifying the Esplanade. Unlike other grass areas, it is equipped with commercial sod, which requires regular fertilizer treatment.

In July 2006, Ebersol Fields developed a fungus and was treated with a chemical fungicide called Tartan. Made by Bayer, Tartan is a preventive and curative fungicide that may be applied to turf sites such as golf courses, institutional and commercial lawns, sports fields, and parks.

According to the label on Tartan, the pesticide is toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, and should not be applied directly to water or to areas near water. “Drift and runoff may be hazardous to aquatic organisms in neighboring areas. Do not make applications when weather conditions favor drift from target area. It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling,” the warning reads.

“Despite the explicitly-stated hazards, Tartan it was applied two times to Ebersol Fields—on Aug. 10 and Sept. 1,” said Robert Tremouille, head of Friends of the White Geese. “The two treatments were made with supplementary field fertilization and irrigation by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.”

Is Fungicide Creating Algae?

Perhaps coincidentally, the algae bloom exploded after the first application of Tartan. The algal level dropped towards the end of August, but then went up in September, after the second Tartan application. It turned the lagoons and river to an eerie shade of glowing pea-green and cancelled the Charles River Swim—a racing event that was supposed to commemorate improving conditions of the water.

The fungicide application to Ebersol Fields has not been proven to be the direct cause of the algae bloom. “No one knows whether or not there is a link between the use of Tartan and the algae bloom,” Representative Martha M. Waltz of the State House said.

Some, however, feel that the government should shoulder some of the responsibility. “The Department of Conservation argues that the fertilizers are organic, but even organic fertilizers contain certain amounts of phosphorus,” said 64-year old activist Marilyn Wellons.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, phosphorus was responsible for the explosive algae growth in the Charles River during the past two summers. Phosphorus gets into the river from various sources: storm water runoff from streets, buildings and parking lots, fertilized lawns, and wastewater treatment plant discharges. Authorities, however, are all pointing fingers away from themselves due to lack of scientific evidence on which one of those factors caused the most phosphorus. The Charles River Watershed Association is blaming highways and factories—working closely with the Conservation Law Foundation to force state agencies and private companies to clean up their discharges. The association filed lawsuits against the Massachusetts Highway Department to clean up polluted highway runoff and challenged the Mirant Kendall—a factory that uses river water to cool its engines—to lower the amount of hot water that its plant discharges into the river.

While hot water being poured into the river is certainly not helpful, records from Mirant Kendall show that it is unlikely that the factory is mainly responsible for the algae bloom. The level of hot water discharge during the past couple years has been going down in the past two years, whereas the level of algae has been going up.

Though unsure of the cause, officials do know that they must come up with realistic solutions to prevent further algae blooms. A study that the environmental protection agency released in October showed that current phosphorus levels in the Charles are 117 percent above levels allowed by the Clean Water Act. A few months ago, the agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection issued a new target to reduce the amount of nutrient phosphorus entering the river.

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