There has been significant confusion around the university’s plans to enhance its marine science research and teaching capabilities. Here, we provide answers to the most frequently asked questions.
How does the MSC’s seawater system compare to other local systems?
The MSC’s seawater system is an open loop — or single pass system—which means there is constant flow through our facility with no recirculation. This allows researchers to conduct experiments under naturally occurring seawater conditions. Moreover, water does not remain in one area for extended periods of time, which reduces the effects of our activities on the water that is ultimately discharged back to the sea. In contrast, the New England Aquarium has a closed loop system, where water is changed far less frequently. This system, which pumps less water overall, is necessary because many of the Aquarium’s species are tropical and require elevated water temperatures. In short, the two systems are fundamentally different, each suited to specific needs.
Why did Northeastern’s original permit request include discharging heated water into the ocean?
The MSC’s withdrawn MEPA filing included a proposed system upgrade that would have used seawater to heat and cool expanded teaching and research labs. In response to community feedback, Northeastern has eliminated this design element from the proposed addition to Murphy Bunker. Seawater will not be used to heat or cool any MSC buildings.
Does the current seawater system discharge exceed allowable temperatures?
No. Since questions were raised earlier this year, scientists have been monitoring the thermal impacts of seawater discharge to Bathing Beach. The data show that the average discharge temperature at the seawater intakes is well below the maximum increase allowed under the Massachusetts Surface Water Quality Act and the federal Clean Water Act. Moreover, installation of a new diffuser system will further reduce any minimal thermal effects by dispersing seawater over a larger area farther out in the cove.
Does discharge from the MSC seawater system negatively affect the local lobster population?
No. Since 1985, University of Washington biologist Dr. Ken Sebens has been monitoring lobster abundance — and other species — off of Dive Beach and two areas close to Bathing Beach (inside and outside of Shag Rocks). Each year, lobster abundance is counted by divers along 25 meter by 1 meter transects — a common approach to sampling. These data show no significant change to lobster abundance over time at these sites. The data also indicate considerable variability in lobster abundance over this 33-year period, with boom and bust years for lobsters. Nevertheless, Northeastern remains committed to working closely with local lobstermen to minimize any impacts on the local fishery.
Will upgrading the MSC’s seawater intake system reduce erosion on Bathing Beach?
Yes. The MSC’s expected proposal will reduce scour — or erosion — on Bathing Beach by eliminating the existing seawater discharge pipe from the seawall face. The proposed system would redirect the discharge to an offshore underwater diffuser system that will disperse the seawater over a larger area, farther out in the cove. This diffuser system would further reduce the already minimal thermal effects associated with discharged seawater.
What is the current status of the MSC seawater upgrade project?
As noted in an earlier FAQ, the university withdrew its application to upgrade its existing seawater intake system so that we could better understand the comments and concerns of Nahant residents. We have been working with independent marine scientists, engineers, and regulatory agencies to ensure that the concerns of Nahant residents are addressed. We are confident that any final upgrade proposal will meet or exceed the regulatory requirements of all state and federal agencies.
What are the Marine Science Center’s plan to upgrade its seawater system?
Because the existing seawater system is substantially degraded, it is necessary for the MSC, in consultation with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) office, to request a permit to upgrade the system. Because our scientists require flowing seawater for their ongoing research, this upgrade would be required even if there were no proposed plans to add research and teaching space to Murphy Bunker.
What is the current condition of the Marine Science Center’s seawater system?
The MSC’s current seawater system, last upgraded in 2012, has reached the end of its useful life. In its current state, seawater flow rates are far below designed capacity. The system is also routinely clogged, which drops the pressure in the system’s pipes and severely reduces water flow to the research tanks and labs.
Why does the Marine Science Center need a seawater system?
To address the major coastal sustainability issues confronting society today, Northeastern scientists use seawater for experiments to study how different conditions—such as ocean warming and acidification—affect marine life.
How did Northeastern come to own property in Nahant?
According to official town documents, in the mid-1960s, the Town of Nahant declined the option of acquiring all of East Point from the federal government for use as a public park. Several private developers wanted to purchase the site to build high-rise apartment complexes. Instead, the Town Conservation Committee approached many area non-profits, ultimately encouraging Northeastern to obtain the surplus parcels, which it did in February 1966. Over the years, Northeastern helped clean up the former WWII coastal defense and Nike missile site, enhancing the environment of East Point and the Nahant community.
Is Northeastern seeking to build-out all of its property in East Point?
No. According to the Town of Nahant’s 2008 Open Space and Recreation Plan, Northeastern owns 20.42 acres in Nahant, or 889,495 square feet. The proposed 60,000-square-foot expansion—just 15,000 of which would touch new ground—would be built into and on top of the existing Murphy Bunker. Overall, this represents just 6.7 percent of Northeastern’s property.
Will the proposed expansion prevent residents’ use of open space in East Point?
No. Nahant residents will continue to have unrestricted use of Lodge Memorial Park, which comprises 8.3 acres in East Point. The proposed expansion will not impact public access to Lodge Park. Moreover, Northeastern is not seeking to develop Eastern Bluff, open space contiguous to Lodge Park. Nor is the university seeking to develop Dive Beach. Thus, there will be no impact to the rocks and shoreline habitats at East Point used by migratory birds. Northeastern will also enhance existing vegetation around Murphy Bunker.
How can Northeastern scientists support spoiling East Point’s pristine natural environment?
The site has not been pristine for at least the past century. Beginning in 1917, the United States Army constructed bunkers and guns behind man-made hills, and stripped vegetation. After the military base closed, the Nike missile silos at East Point were filled in with a variety of materials and topped with landfill, including asphalt and cement. The result was uncontrolled, invasive plant growth and an unsightly public hazard. In the mid-1990s, Lodge Park was created by sculpting a rolling meadow and covering it with loam. Northeastern has left the vast majority of its property undeveloped as an ecological study area.
Why can’t Northeastern do its research and teaching in a smaller facility?
The environmental threats faced by the world’s coastal communities—collapsing fisheries, microplastics pollution, loss of biodiversity, and sea-level rise—are complex and interconnected. Scientists need every tool at their disposal to solve these and other problems; such tools include sophisticated sensor and data-gathering technology, and computer analytics for climate-change modeling. This requires a variety of well-equipped labs that give our researchers and students the capabilities to utilize these new tools and facilitate collaboration across different fields.
Why hasn’t a traffic study been conducted yet?
Preparation of a Transportation Impact Assessment (TIA) is generally triggered as a function of the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act review process. A TIA is warranted when certain minimum thresholds are met (for example, 2,000 average daily trips to a single site or construction of 1,000 or more new parking spaces). The proposed building expansion is only projected to increase the daily onsite population by 37 faculty members, staff, and postdoctoral students combined. There will also be additional students, but it is important to note that they do not travel to Nahant every day and often carpool or take small shuttlebuses. Once Northeastern requests a permit, it will pay for an independent traffic study should the MEPA process or other agency review require one.
Why doesn’t Northeastern provide Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) funds to Nahant?
If Northeastern were a commercial enterprise, its annual property tax assessment due to the Town of Nahant would be approximately $55,000. By contrast, the university provides more than three times this amount in cash and in-kind benefits annually to the Nahant community. This includes $100,000 for four half-tuition undergraduate scholarships for Nahant residents to attend Northeastern. It also includes $25,000 in funding for the Johnson Elementary School’s art and music program. The university also provides scholarships for K-12 Nahant students to attend the Marine Science Center’s summer Coastal Ocean Science Academy, paid student internships, and free public lectures and films for Nahant residents. In addition, Northeastern hosts community fundraisers and events at the Marine Science Center, and is a proud sponsor of the Nahant Little League.
What examples of collaboration exist between Northeastern and Nahant to preserve the local marine environment?
There is a long history of collaboration between the Town of Nahant and Northeastern to protect ocean and marine life around Nahant and beyond. Our faculty have offered many hours of free scientific consultation and have joined forces many times over the years with the town, SWIM, and community stakeholders to secure secondary sewage treatment, prevent cruise ship discharge off Nahant, and study and manage Boston Harbor’s coastal and estuarine ecosystems. The MSC has also monitored water quality around Nahant, led annual Nahant beach cleanups, housed community beekeeping onsite, and provided education and outreach programs for local students.
What external recognition has the Marine Science center received?
The MSC is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading coastal sustainability research institutes. In partnership with environmental advocates such as The Nature Conservancy and MassBays, our faculty have received more than $16.5 million in funding over the last five years from the National Science Foundation and NOAA, among other research agencies and foundations. In appreciation for its dedication to the local community, the Nahant Board of Selectmen presented Northeastern with Certificates of Appreciation in 2016. And as SWIM notes on its website, “Marine Science Center professors and staff have given hours and days of free scientific consultation that we could never have afforded if they demanded payment as expert consultants. Northeastern has been essential in protecting the environment of Nahant.”
How large will the proposed building be?
There has been significant confusion about the size and scope of what is being proposed. The preliminary design—for a two-story building plus a basement level—would expand the footprint of the existing research facility by 15,000 square feet and the total amount of research space by 60,000 square feet. By pushing the building into the hill and against the existing bunker, we effectively hide as much of the building as possible. This design is the direct result of our commitment to keeping the building’s profile low, while still enabling the critical research of the Marine Science Center.
When did Northeastern first decide to undertake this project?
Prior to 2017, there were sporadic, very broad discussions about a new Marine Science Center research facility in Nahant. Only in January 2017 did university leaders start to focus in earnest on actual concepts for a new research building and the financial resources required to support it. In June 2017, we initiated the process of securing project cost estimates, a necessary factor in any decision to proceed. It was not until December 21, 2017 that Northeastern’s senior leadership authorized a preliminary building design.
How will that affect the number of Northeastern personnel in Nahant?
Currently, there are 20 faculty, 20 staff, and 11 postdoctoral scientists working at the Nahant campus. In addition, 45 to 60 undergraduate and graduate students commute two to three days per week via shuttle bus from the Boston campus for classes and research. The proposed expansion is projected to increase the daily onsite population to 40 faculty, 25 staff, and 22 postdoctoral scientists.
Does the project include dorms?
No, we are not considering housing of any kind.
Why is Northeastern seeking to expand its Marine Science Center at Nahant?
Over the last 50 years, our researchers in Nahant have conducted groundbreaking work in the fields of marine and environmental science and coastal sustainability. This important work continues to have positive impacts on coastal regions around the world.
Today, the threats posed to coastal communities, including storm surge and sea-level rise, demand that Northeastern enhance its capacity to develop scientific knowledge and engineering solutions for a sustainable planet, and to educate the next generation of innovators that can continue this critically important work. To do that effectively, we must expand the research and teaching capacity of the Marine Science Center.
What is the sea water intake system component of this project?
The university has withdrawn its application to expand its existing seawater intake system. Should Northeastern seek to move ahead with the project, we will work closely with local lobstermen to avoid any impacts to the local fishery. The health of fisheries locally and around the world is central to the research mission of the Marine Science Center.
Why should Nahant residents trust the university? What has Northeastern ever done for the town?
For more than 50 years, Northeastern has been a collaborative partner with the Town of Nahant. This has included university funding for local educational programs, Marine Science Center tours and learning opportunities for K-12 students, and scholarships for Nahant residents who attend Northeastern. The university has also worked with the town on conservation and restoration projects, including joint advocacy on shared environmental issues such as cruise ship discharge in Boston Harbor. Because the university greatly values these strong partnerships, many months ago we reached out to Nahant elected officials in good faith to discuss our interest in expanding our research capabilities at the Marine Science Center. Today, we are expanding these communications to reach residents directly.
How will the increase in the number of scientists and staff affect the parking situation?
Any additional parking will be kept within the confines of the current campus. There will be no need for our faculty and staff to park on the street.
What is the purpose of the expansion?
It is entirely focused on adding research and teaching space—precisely the same activities that we’ve been engaged in since we opened the Marine Science Center in 1967. Because our mission and its impact are so important to society, we plan to continue recruiting outstanding new faculty in a variety of fields, including climate-change mitigation and coastal sustainability.
How will Northeastern’s project impact the environment of East Point?
The university’s expansion proposal remains in development and has not yet reached final design. No permit application is currently pending before the town or any other agency. Therefore, it is too early in the design process to fully understand the potential impacts on the environment or the community. Northeastern is committed to a final project design that has the least possible adverse impacts to the ecology of East Point. And historically, Northeastern has invested in restoring East Point from the impact of prior development there. The university will work collaboratively with Nahant residents to ensure that the Marine Science Center expansion project poses only minimal and short-term disruption to the community.