ON MONDAY November 24, 1980 at 12:05 p.m., the impossible happened. The state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) finally issued a decision in the seemingly never-ending case of Harvard's Medical Area Total Energy Plant (MATEP).
The content of that decision surprised few, Operating under the strict environmental conditions which the state set down in previous rullings, the University will be able to install the diesel engines it needs to make the plant completely functional. After four years of agony and embarrassment and at the cost of more than $230 million-$180 million more than originally estimated-Harvard finally got its way.
True, there are outlets for the community to appeal. A clause in the decision allows opponents to petition the agency for a rehearing-and community groups immediately took advantage of that. And, of course, there is always the option of going to court. But in either case, the outlook for overturning the decision is dim.
Harvard's victory did not come without costs. Along the way to receiving the go-ahead for its plans to provide energy to 13 institutions in the Medical Area, the University suffered deserved humiliation at the hands of the citizens who will have to live in the shadow of the giant plant. And Harvard's financial wizards found out what happens when you don't consult the feelings of residents-in addition to teams of outside efficiency experts-in making such decisions.
While they use the featherdusters on the giant engines, Harvard officials should not think for a minute that this ruling is a vindication of their plan. Rather, it stands as proof positive of what money-and the best Boston lawyers-can achieve. There are rumors that the University is already looking for some way to bypass the federal statute requiring Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval of their plans to operate the plant.
If the University does try to avoid the federal process-time-consuming as it may be-it will only raise further questions about the plant's safety and violate the trust in Harvard's ability to obey safety standards that the DEQE decision represents. MATEP's safety will only really be proven when the diesels are installed and the plant is spewing noxious gases into Mission Hill backyards. If at any time those pollutants exceed safety standards, the University should not hesitate to turn off the engines and take its losses. If Harvard balsk at this possibility, the state should step in.
In the long run, the lessons for the University are great. Each day of the plant's operation-accompained by higher pollution standards, the reduced efficiency that accompanies them, and the bleep of monitors judging the quality of the air-should serve to remind officials of them. Students will have an annual reminder: the extra tuition money the University's financial troubles with MATEP have already begun to demand.
Cogeneration itself may well prove a valuable weapon in fighting rising energy costs and reduced energy supplies. But when an institution like Harvard gets involved in designing and financing its own energy plant, it invites more troble than it avoids. If institutions learn from the MATEP case, they will think hard before entering businesses where they probably don't belong. If they do go ahead with similar projects, they should plan in advance to meet community needs as well as their own.