CCTV is requesting your programming about the current coronavirus pandemic and its effect on your life. Submit here!

Should the Charles be a private cooling pond for power plant? Guest commentary in the Cambridge Chronicle

Should the Charles be a private cooling pond for power plant? Guest commentary in the Cambridge Chronicle

Guest commentary: Should the Charles be a private cooling pond for power plant?
By Mark Jaquith
Wed May 07, 2008, 07:51 AM EDT
Cambridge -

Cambridge - There are some nice changes on the horizon for the Broad Canal. That is the name of the inlet, which branches off the Charles River just downstream of the salt and pepper (Longfellow) bridge. For decades, it has been a rarely visited remnant of East Cambridge’s industrial past. It only extends about 600 or so feet from the river now, but in the 1800s it went all the way to where the train tracks now lie. For a time it connected with the North Canal, which ran to the Millers River, making East Cambridge an island. In its day, it was the delivery route for industries located on its banks. It has been filled to its present terminus east of Third Street.

Today, you can walk its length on a path on the south bank, or sit on the granite blocks at the end. You will be treated to a view of the last bit of the industrial landscape that once characterized the area. The sea wall and the Kendall electric station with its oil tanks, smokestacks, and pipe work are all that’s left of that heritage. Many people think it’s ugly, and it is hard to argue otherwise, but there is a certain beauty in its wretchedness. I am of that persuasion. It is one of my favorite places to photograph and bird watch. The oil stained stone and old fender pilings of the wall on the north bank with a backdrop of raw industry is history on parade. You may also spot great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, hooded mergansers, red-breasted mergansers, pied-billed grebes, and, of course, cormorants, mallards and gulls feeding there. Canada geese nest on the south bank.

Within the next year, construction is due to begin on public access improvements negotiated from abutters by East Cantabrigians. Chief among these are a boardwalk and small park on the north bank, and a canoe and kayak launch with a dock at the western end. This work is a requirement of their state Chapter 91 license and Cambridge zoning variance. Mirant Corp., owner of the power plant, fought for years to get out of its obligation to do its part, namely, the boardwalk and park. They argued at meetings and before the Board of Zoning Appeals that in a post 9/11 world, security concerns made all of this inadvisable. Meanwhile you could walk in their unlocked and unattended front door at will and wander around the plant as a group of us did trying to find our guide for a scheduled tour of the plant. After awhile we went around to the open delivery gate and found someone to call and track down our host.

Biomed Realty Trust, Inc., Twining Properties, and the Constellation Center, owners of Cambridge Research Park on Third Street, are building the improvements at the end of the canal. Lyme Properties was the original developer of this project, and this is a condition of the Planned Unit Development (PUD) permitting worked out with the City.

While I am looking forward to all of this, and the parties involved are now expressing enthusiasm to get started, there are complications. Mirant’s plant draws cooling water from the canal and discharges it into the river. All animal life that goes through is killed. To minimize this, EPA regulates filtration at the intake. Part of Mirant’s current EPA permit renewal is the suggestion that a fine mesh net be placed across the entrance to the canal. The idea is that fish eggs and larvae will be protected. We all want a healthy river, but what other effects might this have?

It will prevent the entry of larger fish, which many wetland birds eat, creating a dead zone, possibly violating wetlands regulations. It will interfere with the passage of small watercraft, diminishing the utility of the boating facility. It will prevent the use of small “trolling“ motors by disabled boaters possibly violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. It will prevent the entry by powerboats into what has been a navigable public waterway for generations. It will interfere with the property rights of abutters. Mirant does not own the whole canal nor all of its banks. The infringement of the other owners’ enjoyment of their property may be a taking in violation of the Constitution.

There are alternatives. One would be to have Mirant relocate its cooling intake to the Charles River outside of the canal where Memorial Drive extends over the water, several hundred feet south of its current location. Another would be not to renew the permit. Kendall Station is one of the largest polluters of the Lower Charles. It is an established fact that the heat load dumped into the river by this plant creates a "dead zone," harming several fish species. Should the Charles be the private cooling pond for Mirant?

Mark Jaquith is a Hurley Street resident and is a member of East Cambridge Planning Team and the Ward 1 Democratic Committee.