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Devin O’Dea

What happens when the snow drifts begin to pile so high that they start to block out the sun, and the snowplows have no place left to collect their icy haul? With record-setting snowfall and cold temperatures smothering Eastern cities like New York and Boston, officials have been forced to consider drastic measures in order to preserve public safety. The proposed solution to get rid of all the intolerable snow? The same one that sparked the American Revolution; throw it in the Boston Harbor.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced that dumping excess snow in the harbor could be necessary “as a last resort,” even though the practice was banned by Massachusetts state law. Excess snow was commonly dumped into the Boston Harbor up until about 1990, when a multi-billion dollar cleanup project restricted regulations for the formerly “dirtiest harbor in America.” The decision to dump snow in waterways has sparked controversy due to the potentially negative environmental impact. Snow banks along roadways can contain a variety of chemicals and inorganic matter, which if released, could have a detrimental impact on water quality and aquatic ecosystems. John Lipscomb of the New York environmental group Riverkeeper, adds perspective to the equation by stating, “There’s a lot of stuff in this snow that if I isolated it and threw it in the river, you’d have me arrested.”

Snow Farm

Snow plows rest atop a massive pile of snow at a Boston snow farm. Photo courtesy of Michael Dwyer.

Excess snow is traditionally hauled to “snow farms” located in upland areas outside of the City and away from sensitive environments. As the snow melts, pollutants are filtered out through the soil before they can enter waterways, according to Ed Coletta of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MASSDEP). With several snow farms already full, Boston and other affected cities such as New York have resorted to using industrial sized snow melters in an attempt to clear roadways. These machines liquefy thirty tons of snow an hour, discharging it into the sewer system where many of the chemicals are eventually removed at water treatment facilities. However, even these snow melters haven’t been able to keep up the pace with the record-breaking winter weather.

gloucester harbor snow dump

Boston Harbor wasn’t the only waterway in question. Crews are shown dumping snow into Gloucester harbor to the North. Photo courtesy of John Blanding of  The Boston Globe.

As a result, Massachusetts enlisted the help of hundreds of National Guard Troops to assist with the snow removal, and also had heavy equipment sent in from 8 other Northeastern states.

While the MASSDEP doesn’t endorse dumping snow in waterways, it has granted several cities the option to do so citing public safety as a paramount concern to potential environmental impacts. Several mandatory MASSDEP snow disposal guidelines were established help to reduce the associated adverse environmental impacts. They require that cities:

  • Dispose of snow in open water with adequate flow and mixing to prevent ice dams from forming.
  • Do not dispose of snow in saltmarshes, vegetated wetlands, certified vernal pools, shellfish beds, mudflats, drinking water reservoirs and their tributaries, Zone IIs or IWPAs of public water supply wells, Outstanding Resource Waters, or Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.
  • Do not dispose of snow where trucks may cause shoreline damage or erosion.
  • Consult with the municipal Conservation Commission to ensure that snow disposal in open water complies with local ordinances and bylaws.

A historical look at the Blizzard of 1888 which dropped 50 inches of snow in two days. Carts are shown transporting snow to be dumped in the East River of New York City.

Bruce Berman, a spokesman for the non-profit group Save the Harbor/Save the Bay summarizes the sentiment of many on the issue, “We prefer not to have to put it in [the bay], but when there’s an extraordinary condition — and these are certainly extraordinary conditions — we support this,”

As crews work around the clock to dig out the frozen cities, East Coasters wait with icy baited breath for an early Spring thaw and an end to the relentless winter weather.


About the Author
Devin ODeaDevin O’Dea supports the marketing efforts for Great Ecology. He has an entrepreneurial background with a refined approach to modern marketing tactics. He holds a Bachelors degree in Political Science from the University of California Santa Barbara with emphases on International Relations and sustainable development.