The Charles and the Mystic, two of America’s most historic waterways, are located just miles apart. Why did one flourish while the other suffered?

October 2016
By Chris Sweeney,  Boston Magazine

The majestic Charles River wasn’t always so majestic. Through the 1980s, anyone who fell into its tea-colored depths was wise to seek medical care and a tetanus shot. Spanning 80 miles from Hopkinton into the lower basin that divides Boston and Cambridge, the Charles ran adjacent to some of our nation’s earliest mills, stockyards, and munitions depots, withstanding centuries of industrial punishment and urbanization. Yet none of that compared with the damage done by antiquated sewer lines and illegal plumbing hookups that funneled billions of gallons of raw sewage into the river. Human excrement, urine, used sanitary napkins, sullied condoms, and anything else that could be flushed down a toilet found its way in there, accompanied by trillions of harmful microscopic bacteria. When the Standells cemented the river into pop culture with the 1966 hit “Dirty Water,” they were actually being quite polite.

Then everything changed. The Environmental Protection Agency spent the 1990s shaming polluters in the press and suing them into submission. The water cleared up quickly, and today the Charles is among the most widely touted environmental rags-to-riches stories in the world. So much so that on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon in July, something extraordinary happened: 278 people jumped into it.

While swimming is not permitted, the Charles River Conservancy had organized the well-publicized dip to show how safe the water has become, and it is urging the city to build a permanent swimming dock near the Museum of Science. As the Boston area experiences its own renaissance, we are in love with the Charles like never before. “I’ve lived on this river or near this river for 20 years, and being in it just makes you feel differently,” said Ed Lyons, a 44-year-old computer programmer, as he dried off near the bike racks. “The river defines the city.”

What about our other famous river, though, the Mystic? Would Lyons take a swim in that? “Uh, no,” he says, followed by a hearty laugh. “I hear there are a lot of cars at the bottom.”

Less than a week after TV news crews captured families splashing around in the Charles, the Mystic River has its own moment in the spotlight when dozens of out-of-towners pile into a bus at PORT Park, in Chelsea. Industrial eyesores loom in every direction. To the right of a basketball court is a 50-foot-tall mountain of salt that will be used to melt snow on the roads this winter. To the left is a commercial dock set against a backdrop of oil tanks. Across the street sits the brick-and-mortar headquarters of Boston Hides & Furs, once deemed a public nuisance by the Chelsea Board of Health and ordered by the feds to pay nearly $1 million to settle allegations of overworking and underpaying its employees. This might seem like an odd spot for a bunch of tourists to kick off a bus tour, but it makes perfect sense if you’re part of a disaster-preparedness conference organized by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Compared with the Charles, the main body of the Mystic is not very long, running 7 miles. Its northernmost tip, marked by two freshwater lakes, is pristine, with a shoreline dotted by mansions and the Tufts University Boathouse. As you head downstream, the river juts out into half a dozen polluted tributaries, including Winn Brook, in Belmont, which earned an F in water quality last year from the Environmental Protection Agency, and Mill Brook, in Arlington, which earned a D. The scenery along the shore deteriorates in the lower basin as you head past Everett and into Chelsea. Here the Mystic defines the city’s southern border and branches off into two heavily trafficked industrial inlets: Island End River and Chelsea Creek.

“Along the Chelsea Creek we store 70 to 80 percent of the region’s heating fuel and 100 percent of the jet fuel that’s used at Logan International Airport,” says our tour guide, Roseann Bongiovanni, who’s talking over the PA system and pointing out the bus window. As a kid growing up in Chelsea, she says, there were no parks along the shores and the Mystic was just an afterthought, an invisible private-sector workhorse cordoned off by fences and security gates. She didn’t even know her hometown had a waterfront.

Unlike the Charles, a pleasure garden for Cambridge and the Back Bay, the lower Mystic is a playground for polluters. Over the past two decades, episodes have included a 15,000-gallon diesel oil spill from an ExxonMobil terminal; MassPort’s proposal to bury contaminated soil at the bottom of Chelsea Creek; Global Partners’ plan to store carcinogenic asphalt along the shore; and a proposal by Cape Wind’s parent company to put a diesel power plant near an elementary school. “I see a lot of raised eyebrows,” Bongiovanni says, smirking at the skeptics on the bus. “You think this is crazy? This shit is crazy. I kid you not, this happened.”

In light of the Charles River’s remarkable makeover, the persistent onslaught of industrial pollution and development here seems cruelly lopsided. The most heavily industrialized parts of the Mystic are within eyeshot of our beloved Boston Harbor and right in the backyard of some of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods. Eight of the most environmentally overburdened communities in the state are located along the Mystic River Watershed. These places, including Everett and Chelsea, tend to lag far behind their counterparts along the Charles in terms of household income and tend to have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and asthma.

Technically speaking, Everett, Chelsea, and East Boston are classified as “environmental justice communities” and should be afforded special safeguards to counter the decades-long laissez-faire approach to pollution in these working-class areas. Yet to those who’ve been paying attention, it looks like the regulators and legislators who control the Mystic’s fate have thrown in the towel. “Over the years there has been a great deal of attention by officials at the highest level of government toward addressing pollution problems along the Charles,” says Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation. “You haven’t seen any such action along the Mystic.”

How is it that two of the country’s most historical rivers, located just miles from each other, forged such drastically different legacies? On a superficial level, the Charles is the river that Matt Damon crosses on the Red Line to visit his Harvard sweetheart, while the Mystic is where Sean Penn ruthlessly murders an innocent Tim Robbins. But it’s far more than Tinseltown depictions—the rivers’ divergent paths highlight Boston’s deepest, longest-running divides.

Hard as it may be to believe, the Charles and the Mystic started out on equal footing. They were both fertile fishing grounds that Native Americans stewarded for thousands of years. Then the first waves of European settlers arrived, and the rivers went to hell.

During the 1600s, the wide, deep swath of the Mystic near the present-day Blessing of the Bay Boathouse, in Somerville, is where some of the first tall ships built in the New World took to water. The inaugural vessel launched here belonged to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and set out on its maiden voyage in 1631. Soon enough, shipbuilders flocked to the shores of the Mystic to take advantage of its strong tides and proximity to the ocean. Meanwhile, over on the Charles, the population of settlers was growing and the landscape was morphing. Businesses opened, trade picked up, and ships carrying loads of textiles, timber, and molasses became regular fixtures on the quiet backwaters that fed into the harbor.

As the American colonies coalesced, the two rivers served as a commercial and cultural backbone for the fledgling nation. The waterways were bloody flash points during the Revolutionary War, and later inspired the region’s artists; in Lydia Maria Child’s classic 1844 poem “Over the River and Through the Woods,” the river she so excitedly traverses is the Mystic. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on the other hand, preferred the Charles, as evidenced in his 1842 poem “To the River Charles,” in which he likens it to “the stream of life.”

In reality, by the time these poets were drawing inspiration from the rivers, both bodies of water were trashed with the heavy metals and toxic chemicals from America’s first industrial boom. By 1865, Woburn was home to more than 20 leather tanneries, one of the most environmentally hazardous cottage industries a city could embrace, and the chemical runoff began slowly migrating through the Mystic River Watershed. Life wasn’t any better on the Charles: The Boston Board of Health in 1872 issued a report describing the river as being “enveloped in an atmosphere of stench so strong as to arouse the sleeping, terrify the weak, and nauseate and exasperate nearly everybody.”

In the late 19th century the two rivers’ stories diverged. It started when the state and the city decided to turn the Charles’s Back Bay from a shallow cesspool into an upper-crust neighborhood. Between 1857 and 1900, construction crews filled in the polluted mud flats, erected elegant brownstones, and outfitted the new neighborhood with world-class public amenities, including the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library. “Industry faded faster along the Charles,” says Robert Allison, a history professor at Suffolk University. “The Back Bay was created to be an enclave of wealth.”

Not long after the Back Bay was completed, Boston ensured that the town’s movers and shakers had access to the Charles, setting aside a long stretch of the waterfront that would eventually become the Esplanade and link together large portions of the city’s parkland. Over on the other side of the river, in Cambridge, the footprint of Harvard University continued expanding, and MIT opened its new campus just down the shoreline in 1916.

The towns in the Mystic River Watershed weren’t so lucky. Instead of parks and elite institutions, they got a Converse rubber plant, a Monsanto sulfuric acid plant, a Ford assembly line, and the highest-capacity power plant in Massachusetts. During World War II, the Mystic was less a river and more a pipeline for the war effort. In the following decades, white flight hit the area: The outer suburbs swelled with the new middle class while cities such as Chelsea, East Boston, and Somerville filled with poorer Asian and Latino immigrants who didn’t have the political capital or financial resources to beat back the tide of industrial pollution.

With the Mystic carrying Boston’s commercial payload, the Charles was ready for its second act. There was just one major problem: It was still full of sewage.

On October 22, 1995, as rowers from around the world came to Boston to compete in the Head of the Charles Regatta, John DeVillars brooded. The river was in terrible shape and DeVillars, head of the EPA’s New England division, wanted everyone to know it. In hopes of grabbing some headlines, he issued a provocative press release stating that the Charles was “notable not for its recreational potential but for the stench of sewage.” He then boldly predicted that under his direction the EPA would resurrect the Charles River and have it fit for swimming within a decade.

It sounded ludicrous, but DeVillars, an appointee of President Bill Clinton with degrees from Harvard and Penn, knew that the Charles’s problems were already on their way to being fixed. Thanks to a federal lawsuit filed the previous decade, the court had ordered the state to build the $3.8 billion Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant to process the steady stream of raw sewage that overflowed into the Charles from the city’s ancient sewer system.

That alone wasn’t a cure. DeVillars still had to contend with illegal dumping all throughout the Charles River Watershed. It was common to find apartment buildings in Brookline, Watertown, or Milford with plumbing systems that flowed to the Charles. These jerry-built pipelines were public enemy number one as far as DeVillars was concerned. To take them down, he knew he needed to become the Eliot Ness of environmental law. “The EPA was more or less saying, ‘Pretty please, won’t you obey the law?’” DeVillars tells me. “After enough pretty pleases, it was time to take enforcement action.”

Among the first targets the EPA went after was Brookline, a wealthy suburb with a politically active tax base that would be loath to see a lawsuit over their waste play out in the news. It was the exact type of high-profile case DeVillars needed to kick-start the agency’s crackdown. “That enforcement action against Brookline was the shot heard ’round the Charles,” he says. The EPA’s willingness to go hard at Brookline was a wake-up call to nearby cities, and suddenly public works departments throughout the watershed were willing to work with the EPA in order to avoid costly lawsuits, hefty fines, and bad press.

In another display of its newfound regulatory might, the EPA took Boston University to task for two oil spills that had recently occurred in the Charles. As a result, the school had to cough up $771,000 to settle the case—the largest environmental penalty ever levied against an educational institution at the time. It wasn’t long before Harvard announced that it was voluntarily launching a new strategy to mitigate runoff into the Charles.

DeVillars notes that the agency didn’t rely solely on the stick of enforcement to get results. It gave ample warning to violators to get on board before it was too late. After all, he’d much rather fix the problem than stuff the EPA’s docket with legal battles that could go on for years.

The one-two punch of relentless enforcement and infrastructure upgrades worked almost immediately. In 1999, the Charles was safe enough to swim in 65 percent of the time, up from just 19 percent four years earlier. In 2004, nine years after DeVillars promised a swimmable Charles, the river scored its first B+ ranking from the EPA. Looking back, DeVillars, who left the agency in 2000, describes the Charles as a laboratory in which the EPA was able to test legal pressure points, experiment with media strategies, and piece together broad coalitions. He had only one shot to prove that urban rivers could be quickly and dramatically revived, and he succeeded. Today, he stops short of saying it was easy, but he emphasizes that the EPA has in its arsenal some of the toughest environmental laws in the world. “The laws that were on the books in the 1990s when we began the Charles initiative are still on the books today,” he says. “It’s a question of using those tools as ambitiously and effectively as possible.”

While DeVillars led the charge on the Charles, though, the Mystic still suffered. It was out of sight, out of mind. “The Charles was the primary if not sole focus,” he says. “People come from all over the world to go to universities here or get medical care here or come for business here, and the Charles River is an important part of the image of Boston.” It wasn’t a hard choice, DeVillars says. The Charles was simply more marketable than the Mystic.

The Mystic River needs a John Devillars. Critics say the EPA has failed time and again to take meaningful enforcement actions against chronic polluters in the lower basin, where large parts of the waterway are state-zoned “Designated Port Areas” and development is restricted to water-intensive commercial pursuits.

There’s little denying that companies occupying these lots play an essential role in Boston. We can’t have a functioning international airport if we don’t have an easy way to ship in the jet fuel and store it. We can’t keep the roads clear in the winter if we don’t have a channel deep enough to hold the giant ocean liners that haul several tons of salt across the Atlantic. But there’s a right way to accommodate these activities, and at this moment things along the lower Mystic are far from right.

One of the best illustrations of regulatory inaction, says Campbell, of the Conservation Law Foundation, is the ExxonMobil terminal in Everett, not far from where the Island End River converges with the Mystic. Campbell says CLF’s review indicated that ExxonMobil has violated its pollution discharge permit at this site at least 70 times since 2010, allowing a litany of chemicals to be swept into the Mystic. “We’re not talking about trivial violations of a permit. These are not technical violations,” he says. “The violations that we found were orders of magnitude in exceedance of their permit limits. And in many cases those exceedances were of very potent carcinogens.”

To drive the point home, Campbell prints out a two-sided spreadsheet using EPA data showing each time that CLF believes ExxonMobil violated its permit over the past five years. On July 10, 2010, for instance, the spreadsheet shows the amount of the carcinogenic chemical chrysene discharged from the facility exceeded the allowable limit by 2,848 percent. It additionally shows that on April 20, 2015, the level of acenaphthene, also carcinogenic, exceeded the allowable limit by 4,481 percent. In response, a spokesperson for ExxonMobil says the Conservation Law Foundation’s allegations are “factually inaccurate” and that the Everett terminal complies with federal and state regulations. Campbell strongly disagrees and announced that his foundation plans to sue the oil company for violating the Clean Water Act. “It’s stunning,” says Campbell, who claims that the EPA has not taken any enforcement action against Exxon. “As someone who has enforced the Clean Water Act for over 20 years, I am stunned that the EPA has allowed such egregious violations on a sustained basis, essentially with impunity.”

The EPA takes issue with this perception. “We feel like we’ve been doing a lot and we’ve been enforcing to the best of our abilities,” says Todd Borci, a water enforcement officer at the agency. To be fair, the EPA has scored a few victories. Borci points to a 2012 EPA consent decree imposed on Suffolk Downs after horse manure and urine contaminated Sales Creek, in Revere. In addition to a $1.25 million fine, the track agreed to fund $3 million worth of nearby environmental projects. That same year, Borci notes, the EPA nailed the Boston Water and Sewer Commission for having an illegal sewer hookup that spewed raw sewage into East Boston’s Constitution Beach.

Ken Moraff, a director at the EPA who worked alongside DeVillars, points out that the agency has been gutted. The staff of the New England division is approximately 25 percent smaller than it was under DeVillars, he says, and its budget has been slashed. The leaner the agency gets, the harder it is to wage the long, complex legal battles that are hallmarks of environmental law.

All of these factors have culminated in a sense of environmental ennui, and it’s the residents in the Mystic River neighborhoods who pay the price. “It’s kind of a ‘broken windows’ theory,” explains EK Khalsa, who led the Mystic River Watershed Association for nearly a decade. Every time someone is given a pass on a permit violation that would be enforced in other jurisdictions, he says, it reinforces the idea that it’s possible to get away with things on the Mystic that you wouldn’t get away with on the Charles. Every time lawmakers fail to allocate resources to set basic pollution limits on the Mystic, it falls farther behind the Charles.

Khalsa is sympathetic to the EPA’s struggles, but doesn’t accept them as excuses for setting the bar lower on the Mystic than it did on the Charles. “We should do what we did for the Charles in the Mystic,” he says. “Part of our effort is to persuade the EPA that enforcement of regulations in the Mystic is one of the essential components of improving life for Mystic River communities.”

It’s hard to argue that the Charles’s turnaround is anything short of sensational. But Khalsa worries that the ongoing disparity between the two rivers speaks to a wider trend in which affluence equals protection. “Are we going to barricade ourselves into a small number of communities, which are healthy and well?” he asks. Put another way, are we content to leave the less affluent living in communities contaminated by us all?

The most dramatic difference between the Charles River and the Mystic River isn’t a matter of pollution or water quality. It’s a matter of access.

We don’t love the Charles because it scores a B+ from the EPA. We love it because it’s a free destination open for anyone to enjoy. Should the urge strike, you can walk, run, or ride a bike along it for miles uninterrupted. There are public playgrounds, public exercise equipment, and public docks from which you can enjoy a spectacular sunset. In the fall people pile onto its bridges and shores to watch the best rowers in the world go head to head. In the summer we take to the Esplanade for fireworks and top-notch symphonic entertainment. It is an easily accessible oasis in the midst of a concrete jungle.

This is where the Mystic diverges so sharply from the Charles, and no community knows this better than Everett, where the Mystic’s shores have been swallowed up by a power plant, pumping stations, and chemical companies for more than a century. “Frankly, one of the reasons that the Charles and the Mystic look so different,” Khalsa says, “is the level of attention and the resources that have been applied to the parklands.”

Hope, though, comes in all shapes along the Mystic. Medford has long had the Mystic River Reservation, and now Somerville has greened up the Assembly Square area. Now in Everett, hope is taking the form of a 629-room resort dreamed up by the billionaire casino magnate Steve Wynn. This summer Wynn began building his $2.1 billion casino on the same spot where Monsanto once manufactured sulfuric acid. For decades the parcel of land was rife with contaminated soil and sat vacant behind a chainlink fence.

As part of the proposal, Wynn set aside $30 million to haul out all of the tainted soil and build a 6-acre park along the Mystic. It will have a living shoreline and will be open to the public year round. If all goes as planned, there will be a water shuttle that ferries commuters and visitors to downtown Boston in 15 minutes, and tree-lined pathways for walkers, runners, and cyclists. Environmentalists have lauded the park project as a major step toward a connected green space along the Mystic.

Still, struggles remain. Next door to Everett, in Chelsea, Roseann Bongiovanni continues pressuring polluters and encouraging the community to embrace the Mystic as a river that’s every bit as important as the Charles. In East Boston, not far up the road from the Condor Street Urban Wild park is a vacant lot that previously belonged to Hess Oil. The Boston Redevelopment Authority is now accepting proposals for the land and has narrowed its plans to three options: an organic composting facility, a salt mountain and distribution site, or a “maritime industrial hub.”

Fran Riley, a 73-year-old who has lived in Eastie her entire life and can recall the oily stench that wafted from the abandoned Hess tanks, is glad to see that the city is doing something with the lot, though she is underwhelmed by the options. If it were up to her, she’d turn the space into protected parkland dedicated to the battles of the Revolutionary War that unfolded along the water. “Why can’t we sit at the creek and ponder our thoughts?” she asks. “That whole area should look like the Charles River.”

For now, though, if Riley’s wish came true, it would simply mean a park that looks out at oil terminals, salt mountains, and tanker ships. The Mystic is still waiting for a hero.