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Another Step Closer

Another Step CloserOn Monday, a cutting-edge project between Tufts and several local towns to clean the Mystic River got a boost from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.01.01] Heavily polluted by toxic chemicals, waste disposal plants and two Superfund sites, Massachusetts' Mystic River doesn't get much use by the millions of residents who live along its banks. But a collaborative effort between Tufts, Somerville and other neighboring communities is working to make the river fishable and swimmable by 2010. And a new grant -- one of the first in the country awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency -- will bring the project one step closer to its goal.

The Federal agency approved over $360,000 in funds to pay for a state-of-the-art system, created by Tufts engineers, that will predict, asses and report the Mystic River's water quality in real time.

"We'll use advanced sensor technology to measure water quality from several stations along the river," said Tufts President Lawrence Bacow. "We'll then transmit data from these sites and the information will be processed, archived and placed on constantly updated dial-in phone messages, cable TV and Web sites -- in English and Spanish."

The impact on the community will be meaningful, said Somerville Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay.

"This is a tremendous advancement for the community and may well serve as a model for other urban areas across the country," she said. "It represents an important first step beyond the regulatory initiatives under way to clean up the Mystic River."

The new technology will not only raise awareness about the volume and type of pollution in the Mystic, but it will also keep the community safer.

"People currently have to make decisions about boating, swimming and fishing on the river based on day-old readings -- or no readings at all -- of bacteria levels," she said. "When this system is up and running, we will know on any given day whether it's okay to enjoy our river."

And the influx of information about the Mystic's water conditions will likely increase public support for the river's cleanup, said EPA Regional Administrator Robert Varney.

"History has shown, citizens who are well informed are apt to get involved in building support for cleaning the river and making it happen," he said.

Bacow -- who joined Kelly Gay, U.S. Congressman Michael Capuano and several state representatives at a press conference announcing the grant -- said Tufts has committed both financial and intellectual resources to the clean-up initiative.

The University recently earmarked $90,000 in funds to pay for equipment and staff to pay for the water monitoring project -- the latest in a long line of Tufts projects related to the Mystic dating back to 1975.

Over the last few years, Bacow said Tufts has expanded its collaboration across the University and within the local communities to help the Mystic initiative pick up speed.

"Under the leadership of our Engineering School's Paul Kirshen, we began to consolidate all of our projects [related to the Mystic River] across the University -- from the Medical, Veterinary and Fletcher Schools to our liberal arts, sciences and engineering programs," he told reporters during the press conference. "I'm pleased to have Paul leading Tufts' participation in the program, because he embodies the kind of 'collaborative innovation' we encourage at Tufts."

Those cooperative efforts are invaluable, said the EPA's Robert Varney.

"It's wonderful to have colleges and Universities like Tufts invested in the community," Varney told reporters. "This is just the kind of project we try to model elsewhere in the region."

This isn't the first time the EPA and Tufts have worked together to benefit the public -- the environmental agency has also supported Tufts initiatives to study global climate change and reduce childhood asthma.

In each case, the expertise of Tufts faculty coupled with the support of government leaders and community activists has led to significant progress.

"We have a long way to go," said U.S. Congressman Michael Capuano (D-MA), who helped establish the Mystic clean up project while he was Mayor of Somerville. "This is a great start and we've put together a great team."

He specifically praised Tufts' commitment to the environment, calling the University's environmental program and faculty "fantastic."

"It takes commitment from people from 'day one' all the way to the end," the congressman said. "Thus far, we've got it."

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