One Step Forward, One Step Back

SMOKESTACKS

The year started brightly for the people in charge of the controversial Medical Area Total Energy Plant (MATEP) but proceeded to get dimmer and dimmer.

Community fears over the plant's allegedly dangerous emissions continued to plague efforts to install the diesel engines which MATEP needs in order to be cost- and energy-efficient. Worse yet, cost of the cogeneration plant--slated to provide chilled water, steam and electricity to 13 institutions in Harvard's medical area--continued to balloon from a 1976 estimate of $40 million to almost $200 million this year.

After four years of hemming and hawing, the staff of the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) this fall finally recommended that MATEP be allowed to install the precious diesel engines. Earlier rulings had gone against the Harvard-supported plan and L. Edward Lashman, the University's director of external projects, hailed the event as "the first step in a chain of events that means we can get the diesel in."

Lashman, unfortunately, hadn't gotten his signals straight with the higher-ups at the DEQE, who spent the next six months studying and reconsidering the MATEP proposal to operate within strict environmental guidelines. At first, DEQE deputy commissioner David Fierra--the man who was supposed to make the final decision on the diesels--agreed with the DEQE general counsel that the plant be given a chance to submit a new proposal.

When residents of the Mission Hill and Brookline area caught wind of Fierra's decision, they cried out in anger but to little avail.

Two months later, the agency's general counsel reminded Fierra that the proposal was still sitting on his desk. In late April, about 30 residents "stopped being pleasant" and sat in on the DEQE offices downtown and marched to the State House to ask for new hearings on the plant.

The fiasco entered the ninth inning only last week when Fierra finally turned down the proposal, claiming that not enough information had been seen. Lashman promised to seek administrative and, failing that, judicial redress.

By June, despite a year-long series of bureaucratic moves, the Harvard-backed project was little closer to completion than it had been in September.