Where do our storm drains lead? Read the plates

If you’re considering pouring cooking grease or car oil down a storm drain on your street, you might find a warning that should give you pause.

On the sidewalk adjacent to many storm sewers across Boston is a metal alloy plaque that bears the notice “Do not litter”, along with the names of the specific bodies of water to which the sewer pipes lead. Both the design and its designer are distinctly Dorchester.

About 30 years ago, Elisa Speranza, who then lived in Dorchester and was a project manager at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC), found that other cities had installed warning signs telling residents to not dump their hazardous waste on the street. Wanting to do the same for Boston, she led the design of the signs that still mark the city’s storm drains today.

“We decided to make it a community involvement type activity to help raise awareness of where the drainage went,” Speranza said. “And also, we just wanted to raise the general level of people’s awareness and their connection to the rivers and the port.”

Beginning in the summer of 1991, Speranza coordinated his community through a volunteer activity of drawing “No Dumping” signs, advertising in community newspapers, and appealing to neighborhood associations.

“It was a very grassroots effort,” said Speranza, who has spent 35 years in water-related businesses. “We provided the stencils, and we provided the paint and the instructions on how to do it, and then we just sent them on their way.”

Those with an eye for detail and some knowledge of Boston’s marine wildlife will notice that the choice of fish species in the design is no accident.

“We had seen the design in other cities and it was usually a generic fish,” Speranza said. “But we wanted it to be a little more local, and the flounder was Boston Harbor’s most well-known and charismatic fish.”

Plaice have played a crucial role in monitoring the city’s water quality, Speranza said. The fish could be found with malformations and tumors in the liver, indicating polluted water that has infected the waterways around Boston. Other plates feature an alewife, a fish common to Massachusetts waters.

The clarity of the painted signs only lasts a few years, mostly due to snowfall and street sweeping, she said. It was after he left the agency that BWSC began installing metal alloy plates with his design. New ones are installed each time the sidewalk is ripped out for construction.

Originally from Lynn, Speranza lived in Dorchester for eight years and now resides in New Orleans, where she has a consultancy and plans to publish a book, “The Italian Prisoner”, in April.

“You go through your career and get involved in all kinds of projects, and to have something like this with such staying power and being so universally recognized is really rewarding,” Speranza, 61, said. “Especially knowing that they still do.”

In addition to regular new plaque installations, BWSC engages city youth in storm sewer marking activities.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the water that goes into these sumps goes into our waterways,” said Adriana Cillo, educational programs coordinator at BWSC. “They think it’s going somewhere to be cleaned up and then it’s abandoned. Well, it’s not.

Cillo works with groups of children aged eight and up to teach them about the negative impacts of improperly disposed household waste. She said children often pass on what they learn to their parents.

“You know, you created a general here,” Cillo said, a mother told him. “She watches me when I’m cooking to see where I throw the oil and fat.”

Speranza said tagging storm drains is a practice that educates children and rallies the community. “Generations have passed since we first did this project,” she said. “For me, it’s a small effort that has a lot of ripple effects and it’s very rewarding to see people recognize that.”

Plates can also be used for other purposes. Cheryl Breen of West Yarmouth was attending an annual Boston Harbor Association auction when she saw three of them bidding. She made winning bids and gave new life to the plaques as stepping stones in her garden.

“I love it because it’s gonna last forever,” Breen said. “I like that it says where the trash goes and then the little fish design.”

Plaques in his garden once marked drainage destinations that would have led to the Neponset and Charles Rivers and Boston Harbor. Although all eventually flow to Boston Harbor, only about 1,500 catch basins flow directly into Dorchester Bay, according to figures provided by BWSC. About 4,600 flow into the Neponset and 14,000 into the Charles River.

“What I see in the story is how a middle manager starting his career makes such a decision and how much of an impact that has on the general public,” said Jeannie Doherty, a friend of Speranza and originally from Dorchester.

“So much about what she did as a public employee while she was here in Boston had such an effect on people’s daily lives. But his legacy is this plaque, which is everywhere,” she said, adding, “So when you’re talking about plaques and things that are embedded in our sidewalks and streets, the ‘Don’t Litter’ signs. port” are one of a few. They are absolutely part of the fabric of the city and its neighborhoods.

This story originally appeared in The Dorchester Reporter.

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