Making Energy and Enemies


COMMUNITY OPPOSITION to Harvard's Medical Area Total Energy Plant (MATEP) began even before ground was broken at the corner of Boston's Brookline Ave and Francis St. in 1976. Fearing community disruption and health hazards stemming from diesel exhaust, residents of the middle-and lower-income towns surrounding the site took action. They vowed to fight every step of the way the diesel plant designed to fill all the energy needs of Harvard's medical schools and facilities.

And for nearly five years the battles went to the underdog. Against invisible odds, the small but scrappy NOMATEP coalition--lacking legal and technical expertise--repeatedly grabbed the ear and approval of judges and regulators. Harvard was repeatedly told to prove that the diesel engines for the plant--which would be the largest of its kind in North America--would not choke Boston. To Harvard's dismay, the hearings triggered a spiral of unforeseen delays and escalating costs.

Construction of MATEP eventually had to halt, with only the contested engines needing installation. But the defeats and delays meant more than unanticipated embarrassment for Harvard; the successful stall tactics of the residents of Brookline. Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain also made the plant's final pricetag balloon by some $1.5 million per month. It now stands at $230 million, several times original projections.

The worsening Harvard financial nightmare and successful community resistance ended in November 1980. Fed up with five years of dilly-dallying. Harvard entered a pivotal state environmental hearing with the staff of the department on MATEP's side and finally got the state go-ahead it had sought for so long. MATEP's momentum picked up, from then on, Harvard has beaten back every attempt by the community to delay the plant they still view as a menace.

THE BOTTOM LINE is simple. When the chips were down--when the fate of MATEP rested on a few crucial approvals--Harvard fully exploited the vast resources that its meek but fiesty opponents lacked. To avoid a long federal process of diesel approval similar to the one which had held back MATEP on the state level, President Bok last spring asked Gov. Edward J. King to request the exemption of MATEP from normal inspection procedures. Harvard had the exemption by May.

And when die-hard opponents protested in court. Harvard lawyers emphasized the cost of further delays for the University. After years of defeat at the hands of powerless but impassioned citizens. Harvard got what it wanted by using the prestige of its president and the bizarre argument that the University should not have to suffer further financial strain from MATEP.

The storm surrounding the plant since its inception has now largely cleared, thanks to Harvard's power-plays and name-dropping. The state will begin testing the six diesel engines in May or June; by the end of the summer. MATEP should be running.

The upcoming work schedule will not be without another spate of community protests. But despite the inevitable symbolic display the NOMATEP coalition shows signs of cracking. The group which originally claimed to represent thousands of concerned citizens and to speak for more than 100 organizations nationwide still packs a living room on occasion, but many members say the fight has been long and frustrating, with no satisfying results. They feel their efforts won only a little extra time before health catastrophe. "What we were trying to do was prove this is a harmful thing before the damage," coalition member Charlotte Ploss says. "The only way to prove it now is by body count."

What now is baffling the coalition, whose approximately 50 members are still committed, is how to shift its role. Once a protest intent on blocking construction, it now must become a relentless watchdog as MATEP becomes a reality. They talk of persuading residents to agree to regular monitoring of their health, particularly their respiratory conditions. But Ploss hasn't "the vaguest idea" what action, if any, the coalition will take in the coming months. "People are talking about selling their houses and moving. Most of them are the ones who have looked closely into the plant," she adds.

Conversely, as the coalition wallows in severe disarray and indecision, MATEP is the busiest it's ever been. Construction work has virtually concluded, engineers are readying for the imminent diesel testing and start-up. For a year-and-a-half, the steam-and-chilled-water portions have been churning efficiently. MATEP is progressing now just like it was supposed to years ago.

BUT HARVARD STANDS at great risk if it becomes complacent towards the issues surrounding the plant or condescending towards its critics. Financial and safety questions won't begin to be answered until the plant's opening. MTAEP was originally expected to save as much as $2 million a year, but Harvard officials have speculated that it may not begin saving money for several years.

Harvard should act more immediately to repair its tremendously strained relations with disgruntled residents. The NOMATEP coalition is embattled. It also owes, by some estimates, several thousand dollars for various legal defenses. But even those who are most resigned to MATEP's operation still bear severe resentment toward Harvard and its clumsy, inconsiderate and heavy-handed fight for MATEP.

There is little way to stop the plant's operation now--a final appeal will be heard sometime this year but will almost certainly bring no change. So the coalition is understandably depleted. But even the slightest indication that health hazards are likely would unleash louder community furor than ever. The area would again be the courtroom, but the coalition would be fighting for lives, not maneuvering for delays. Suggestions of health dangers would also probably call to action the many national and international health groups with which NOMATEP has always been loosely connected, but which never lent it tangible political support.

The Harvard officials who planned MATEP without anticipating community concern left the University long ago, asked to find other employment. So perhaps the MATEP mess and Harvard's insensitivity in the past should not fall on today's administrators. But any future hassles and delays will stem from a lack of action and concerns on the part of today's Harvard.

University officials, of course, can take a respite from dealing with the MATEP issues, now that President Bok and Boston's best lawyers have gotten Harvard what it wanted. But if was lack of foresight which snagged MATEP for half a decade, and complacency could hurt Harvard again.

A friendly hand extended to the community and an invitation to monitor MATEP jointly for health hazards would be an unprecedented gesture; it might begin to assuage the deep resentment that still persists. It might also avoid future legal and regulatory struggles, ones more complicated than ever before. Before choosing to ignore the community again. MATEP officials might try to imagine how viciously the underdog will bite back if it finds its home is being seriously threatened for real and not just on paper.