MARBLEHEAD — Just as the tide rises and falls over the centuries so does the land. Which is why the replacement of corroding pipes carrying sewage from Marblehead to Salem has been delayed despite serious concerns regarding a breach that would send raw effluent into the harbor.
Instead, the state’s Historical Commission has spent the past week investigating the area where new pipes would go, looking for submerged artifacts and evidence of settlements from the days when Salem Harbor was virtually a river with aboriginal inhabitants, Indians, living alongside it.
The Wampanoag tribe has taken an interest in the work.
“What they’re trying to do is document the harbor,” explains Alan Taubert Jr., executive director of the South Essex Sewerage District. “To document what it used to look like.” The commission feels such work needs to be done before construction of a new pipe obliterates the evidence, he indicated.
If Taubert doesn’t sound altogether convinced, it might be because of fears both pipes now running beneath the harbor are in such bad repair they could fail simultaneously, exposing the waterway to the escape of untreated sewage. The problem would also leave Marblehead with little choice but to resort to an old fashioned method of removing its waste — pumping it into the bay off Tinker’s Island.
To prevent this Taubert had asked to take emergency action installing the new pipes. But he could not win the permits to do it.
Salem State University history professor Emerson “Tad” Baker tells why the bottom of the harbor can be a likely place to find valuable clues to former civilizations. Because of changes on land and at sea, “We’ve had a couple of thousands years of rising sea levels. So some sites might be underwater.” That is especially likely in Salem, called “Naumkeag, a place for fishing.”