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It’s an old story. People have been talking about cleaning up Portland Harbor for years,” begins a Maine Sunday Telegram feature story in 1968, written by a fresh-out-of-college waterfront reporter by the name of Lance Tapley.

The story refers to “scores” of oil spills in 1967 and to an article written in 1929– found in the newspaper’s library–that describes an oil slick polluting the harbor. The 1968 story relates efforts by the Coast Guard and a recently founded group called the Portland Harbor Pollution Abatement Committee to move beyond just talking about cleaning up the harbor.

A Portland sewer treatment system, the story notes, was “a long way off.” In 1968, all the city’s human wastes poured unchecked into the harbor, Back Cove, and several streams.

Skip forward almost 40 years to the present: The city’s plant on Munjoy Hill has been treating sewage since 1978, as has South Portland’s Waterman Drive plant. Despite 400-plus tanker visits to the port each year, oil spills are now rare. Even a huge one in 1996, when the Julie N tore into the old Million Dollar Bridge, was contained and cleaned up well enough (at a cost of $48 million) so that no ecological disaster occurred.

Gone are most of the waterfront’s ancient, rotting wooden pilings that churned debris into the harbor with every tide. Volunteer cleanup crews now sweep over Portland’s and South Portland’s shores every September. Most summer days, Portland’s East End Beach is free enough from bacteria to be swimmable. The oxygen level of harbor water is high enough to support abundant marine life.

Visiting cruise ships–some with passengers and crew totaling thousands–have very recently been forbidden to discharge any waste water in the harbor or bay. And watching the waters carefully are two professional groups, the Friends of Casco Bay and the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership–in addition to a squadron of local, state, and federal environmental officials.

But the cleanup of Portland Harbor is not yet accomplished. Most noteworthy, raw human waste still pours into the harbor whenever the volume of water in a rainstorm causes Portland’s and South Portland’s sewage to back up in the sewer pipes from the treatment plants. Of the 43 combined sewer and storm-water outfalls that existed in Portland in 1991, only 11 have been eliminated to date by the replacement of single pipes by pairs of pipes–one for sewage headed for treatment and one for runoff water.