In this corner, ladies and gentlemen, we have Harvard University, mother of presidents, expert on everything, wizard of law and medicine. In the other corner, Charlotte Ploss, Boston housewife and part-time bartender.
At stake we have a $230 million power plant that Harvard wants and Ploss doesn't. The winner and still champion -- Charlotte Ploss.
Might Harvard set out in 1970 on the largest project any university has ever launched. Using the latest in energy-saving technology, as a great university should, it planned to build an oil-fueled electric plant right in downtown Boston to supply the nine mammoth hospitals and medical centers there.
The Medical Area Total Energy Project (MATEP) would not only show the world the latest in cogenerating power by reusing exhaust, but it would also supply chilled water to all the medical centers for air conditioning and steam for sterilizing, heating and cooking. It would save Harvard $2 million a year on its electric bills and make Boston Edison Co. look sick.
Instead, it's Harvard that looks a little sick.
"The rules were changed halfway alon," complained L. Edward Lashman, the university's burly director of external affairs. By that he meant the rules on oil prices, which got a major rewrite with the Arab embargo of 1973. He meant the rules on environmental pollution, which began to change in 1970 and haven't stopped yet. And he meant the economic rules, which didn't account for inflation then and still don't.
"There was no way in the world to predict all this," Lashman said. Like most of those involved with MATEP at Harvard, he insists that the basic idea is sound and that MATEP will eventually save money and everyone will applaud.
At the moment, though, MATEP's six diesel generators gather dust in a faraway warehouse, installation halted by a 1978 court order. Harvard and its builder are exchanging lawyerly threats over cost overruns. Hearings are to resume later this month on the latest envronmental dispute.
And MATEP is into the legendary Harvard endownent fund for loans of what will certainly be about $230 million. Nobody is applauding.
"It's such a turkey we're wondering if someone at Harvard wasn't suckered into it early," Ploss said.
To her, it was just another in the long series of battles between protean, arrogant, ever-expanding Harvard and the Mission Hill section of the city, where she grew up.
Once a working-class district of three-decker Victorian bayfront homes, her neighborhood became kind of a medical Mecca in the 1920s. Harvard's medical, public health and dental schools were located there, along with six hospitals and medical centers famous for their teaching faculties: Children's, Deaconness, Beth Israel, Bost Women's Peter Bent Brigham and Robert Breck Brigham.
"We can't compete with the students for rentals," said Ploss. "The people are transients with no interest in the neighborhood. They increase the traffic and milk the place, and when it's run down enough they get federal money to put up another building."
The MATEP plan, which Ploss unearthed in 1972 in the state papers supporting another Harvard project, the Affiliated Hospitals Center, immediately suggested more problems to her. "Anthing Harvard has done to us in the last decade turned out badly," she said. "We were suspicious right away.'
To the two-score neighborhood activists of Mission Hill, MATEP at its original $50 million projected cost meant more noisy traffic from oil trucks that would run in and out of the plant every day. But it wasn't easy to get Harvard's attention, and it was even harder to get anybody else's.
"It took us years to get past the point where people would say, 'Well, it's Harvard, they wouldn't do anything wrong,' or 'Well, it's Harvard, they're too powerful to stop,'" recalled Lew Horwitz of the Mission Hill group.
Mission Hill began searching the enemy camp for defectors. They found Dr. Jones Whittenberger, chairman of the Harvard medical center's department of physiology.
"Really, Harvard was paying no attention to environmental matter," he said.
"They were brushing off complaints from the community." He wrote to the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) supporting stiff controls on the plant.
It was only the first of many battles in which combatants on both sides would turn out equally festooned with Harvard degrees.
The Mission Hill people found another unlikely ally in Boston Edison, for whom MATEP would mean the loss of a multimillion-dollar customer. Wary of the cogeneration concept and annoyed at Harvard's lofty status, Boston Ed sued in 1975 to keep MATEP from getting the tax-free status Boston gives to redevelopment agencies.
"There never was any way they could provide power cheaper than we can," said Arthur Sharp, who headed the utility's technical division at the time. It puzzled him, he said, that Harvard had not abandoned the whole plan after the 1973 Arab oil embargo. "Somebody was asleep at the switch then," he said.
But Harvard's Hale Champion, a former Cabinet Undersecretary who is now executive dean of the Kennedy School of Government, had proposed MATEP on the grounds that it would save money by using oil more efficiently than Boston Ed does. Rising oil prises, he reasoned, meant even more savings, even though the utility's nuclear and coal plants gave it a cushion.
The university's reputation was at stake. Harvard fought back fiercely.
The original contractor was fired, and its environmental safeguards were rewritten with Whittenberger's help. He was won back to the home team.
Harvard offered tax-starved Boston $1.5 million a year in lieu of taxes, and won a tax exemption. It courted the Roxbury Tenants of Harvard, a tenants' union formed in the wake of the 1969 student takeover of the university, in which "institutional expansionism" first became an issue.
Harvard told the tenants to either support MATEP or a new housing project might founder for lack of free steam heat. The tenants joined up.
"They were co-opted," grumbled John Grady of the Mission Hill Group. But resistance to MATEP had been split, and construction began in 1976.
Then reinforcements arrived. Downwind, across the Jamaicaway in Brookline, an upper middle-class community, town selectmen named a committee to check MATEP out. The six members have 11 Harvard degrees among them. They took a new track.
MATEP, they said, would emit too muc nitrogen oxide to be safe. In 1977, the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering stunned Harvard by agreeing and rejected the 73,000-kilowat diesel-run electrical plant. The chilled water and steam generating backup oil boilers were allowed to proceed.
"At the time we started, diesel [emission] was totally unreglated," Harvard's Lashman complained. "The world fell in on us with that one."
Nitrogen oxides are new enough to the environmental danger list to be only partly understood, although they are known to be an ingredient in smog and acid rain. There are no federal safety standards, so a state-appointed administrative hearing officer took testimony and picked one.
The level chosen was 320 micrograms per cubic liter of air. Lashman was outraged, charging that many cities double or triple that level during rush hour.
"I've never thought these environmental objections had much merit," he said. "It's got to be inferentially true that if the nitrogen oxide issue were serious, EPA would have acted to regulate it by now, or Congress would have been all over EPA's but for not doing it."
But the Brookline-Mission Hill people nailed down their victory with a 1978 court order halting electrical plant construction, an order all the sweeter for coming from a judge who is a Harvard alumnus.
The two sides are still fighting over the nitrogen oxide issue, and Ploss and her allies worry now that they have steadily lost ground as the focus has narrowed. From a relatively simpletraffic-congestion issue, arguments now center on the relative probability of so many micrograms of pollutant occurring at a certain point at a certain time.
This taxes the patience of Charlotte Ploss. "What does all this gibberish mean? she said during one discussion. "What's important is what does it mean to my kids?"
There seems to be an assumption, she said, that MATEP eventually will operate.Harvard has already agreed to run the diesels on No. 6 (heavy) fuel oil, and only as long as emissions are acceptable.The universtiy's determination to keep going all this time must have a political reason behind it, the group theorized.
Lashman said he is equally perplexed at the community's dogged opposition to the plant. "Anything Harvard wants to do, that group opposes. Essentially, they have an anti-institutional position," he said.
He worries more about the financial bog MATEP has created. Constructed like most Harvard projects on loans from the $1.6 billion endowment fund income, MATEP was to have been taken over for long-term backing by an intricate consortium. That deal fell through when inflation, delay and cost overruns boosted the price tag to about $130 million two years ago. Another $100 million will be spent before it is all over.
Harvard now is shouldering the costs, waiting for interest rates to drop and hoping to qualify for a state ta-exempt bond program set up for educational health operations. Lashman said permanent financing, and repayment to the endowment fund, might not occur untl the end of 1981.
Hale Champion remains convinced that the project will pay off eventually, although the steam and cold water coming out now are costing Harvard money.
"The question is whether a major institution should spend so much time and money doing something like this that is not its primary concern, which is education," he said. "No other university could have lived with this." CAPTION: Picture 1, Charlotte Ploss: "Anything Harvard has done to us . . . has turned out badly." AP; Picture 2, Harvard's Medical Area Total Energy Plan plant, a $230 million project to power nine Boston hospitals. AP