By Gerard F. Russell TELEGRAM and GAZETTE STAFF
March 1, 2015 WORCESTER — In December 2012, Worcester Regional Transit Authority Administrator Stephen F. O'Neil told his board he didn't know how much it would cost to rid toxic waste from land being eyed as a new home for the region's bus fleet.
"We know it will be bad, but how bad is the issue," he said.
His prescient observation was posited two years before the authority decided to buy land on Quinsigamond Avenue on which to build a garage and maintenance building. Executive
session minutes from the 2012 meeting where he made the comment were obtained by the Telegram & Gazette in a public records request.
A month earlier Mr. O'Neil told his board "it would cost $1 (million)-2 million but ... it could be $7 (million)-8 million" to clean the coal tar and myriad volatile organic compounds left at the site where a manufactured gas plant once produced power for a growing city, according to meeting minutes.
Two years later, minutes from a Sept. 18, 2014, WRTA board meeting revealed that cost estimates for the cleanup had risen significantly: "The cost is about $10 (million)-$11 million."
The 11-acre Quinsigamond Avenue site was purchased from NSTAR, now Eversource Energy, in March 2014 for $1.95 million. A second site was considered on Route 20, but it was too far from the new transportation hub at Union Station.
to the construction site for Worcester Regional Transit|
Authority's new Maintenance and Operations Facility in Worcester
So far, about 10,000 tons of soil, mostly containing coal tar, have been loaded onto rail cars and shipped to landfills in Niagara, N.Y., and elsewhere in New England for landfill disposal. As much as 800 tons are shipped daily, and the project is only at the halfway mark.
Asked two weeks ago whether the costs are on target with the amount allotted for the cleanup, Mr. O'Neil said, "It is our expectation we will meet that amount."
However, those cost estimates came long before a major surprise in January: Asbestos was discovered on the property.
During an interview in the City Hall office of Worcester City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., Mr. O'Neil interjected, "No, no, that's where we are sitting here today, right. We might move down the site and hit another pocket that we didn't know was there. And so that might necessitate us looking at reviewing costs and see where we go from there."
When the WRTA bought the property, it had no idea a substantial amount of asbestos was among the contaminants on the blighted site. Just how much asbestos is uncertain.
"I could not tell you how much is there, but I could tell you it is there," said Christopher J. Lawson, director of OPM Services with CDR Maguire of Milton, WRTA's project manager overseeing the cleanup work. "We deal with it as we find it."
Mr. Lawson added, "What happens is when you co-mingle asbestos material with hazardous waste, you create something that is not easily defined or characterized, and that's what we're dealing (with)."
The toxic mix also creates regulatory headaches.
"It is like you are mixing two things that should never be mixed," he said.
Mr. Lawson added, "Is that going to delay the project, or is that something you are dealing with as you go? It is delaying it, but it is not delaying it like you would expect. We lose a week, or we lose efficiencies, but we are not shutting the job down. We are proceeding forward."
In a lighter comment, Mr. Lawson said, "We have Mount Worcester out there. To date we have treated 22,000 tons."
"Ultimately we are projecting 48,000 tons plus or minus the coal tar material." It is just an estimate, he added.
To dispel any concerns of WRTA employees who will work in the new, two-story 150,682-square-foot building, Mr. O'Neil said, "We decided to put this thing to rest, ... we decided to take the coal tar out of the whole footprint of the building, and 25 feet out from all sides of the building."
At its deepest, the coal tar is 18 to 20 feet deep, Mr. Lawson said.
As for the asbestos, it came from structures that were part of the antiquated manufactured gas plant that operated from 1870 to 1969.
Mr. O'Neil said, "The building and the tanks and everything else on that site were demolished and that was pre-DEP as we know it now. So there wasn't any regulation in place .... It was all just buried."
Now, the challenge is to contain and remove the asbestos safely so it doesn't become airborne.
"You don't want the friable (asbestos) to get airborne," Mr. O'Neil said adding, "So it is the friable that we are especially concerned with."
As the cleanup becomes more complicated, NSTAR, the former property owner, is under no legal obligation to clean the mess made by predecessor companies that contaminated the site.
"We were open and upfront about the property's history when we and DEP met with WRTA. We provided all associated files to WRTA prior to their acquisition of the property and they also did their own site testing as part of their pre-acquisition due-diligence. We're confident the documentation, testing and sale price properly reflected the site's history," Michael Durand, NSTAR spokesman said.
NSTAR spent roughly $500,000 on assessments and reports related to the site. A risk assessment in 1997 "determined a low environmental risk for the planned future use of the property, which at the time was anticipated to be operations related to our natural gas business," said Mr. Durand.
"The determination meant no remediation work was necessary on our part," he said.
DEP records show the property received a Permanent Closure under an Activity and Use Limitation order.
When asked if NSTAR knew of asbestos on the property, Mr. Durand said, "We were not aware of asbestos in the soil."
When the WRTA purchased the property in March 2014, the DEP did not know asbestos was buried on the property.
According to DEP spokesman Edmund J. Coletta Jr., "Asbestos was detected in one soil sample in February 2013. This information was first presented in a Release Abatement Measure (RAM) Plan, prepared for the WRTA by TRC Environmental Corp. and received by MassDEP on May 22, 2014. WRTA owned the property when the information was received."
Christopher McDermott, a project manager with TRC, said the DEP was not notified prior to the sale because the sample detected in early 2013 was less than one pound, which was not a reportable quantity.
Mr. McDermott said WRTA was advised when the small sample of asbestos was found in February 2013. The discovery was thought to be a minor matter.
"Basically we felt we could deal with it during construction," Mr. McDermott said.
"The regulatory trigger happened this past January (2015) when an amount of asbestos greater than a pound was uncovered during excavation," he said.
As a result, DEP was notified "of what we felt now was a completely different issue."
Mr. Coletta said the cost for the added asbestos remediation "is unknown."
As for NSTAR, the company did not provide TRC, the DEP nor the WRTA with any historic data that would indicate the presence of asbestos on the land.
Mr. O'Neil, the WRTA administrator, said, "All we know is what they provided us."
Historical documents on file with the state DEP show at least a half-dozen structures and buildings on the property were razed in the late 1960s and 1970s. It is believed that many miles of pipes lined with asbestos insulation, and asbestos roofing tiles, were buried on the site, a practice that is now illegal.
Whether all of the cancer-causing asbestos was buried there is not known, said TRC's Mr. McDermott. "I don't know if all of it did. It appears a majority of it did."
Asked if he thought NSTAR should have known of the existence of asbestos on their land, Mr. O'Neil said, "One would think, but who knows."
Last week, NSTAR's spokesman, Mr. Durand said, "We were unaware of the buried demolition debris or asbestos on the site."
Early on in the negotiations, NSTAR sought to be relieved of all liability related to the property after the sale.
According to executive session meeting minutes obtained by the Telegram & Gazette, WRTA lawyer Mark Reich of Kopelman & Paige reported to the WRTA board on Nov. 15, 2012, that "NSTAR wants the WRTA to indemnify them from claims after the property is purchased as well as the specifics of the exact cleanup that will be done on the site. Mr. Reich explained the WRTA does not want to obligate itself beyond what is required so this has caused a little push back."
The minutes continued, "Mr. Reich reiterated to the board the WRTA is not buying a clean site but rather a dirty site which NSTAR will not be a partner in the cleanup."
In the same meeting, Mr. O'Neil told the board the authority "has the ability to escape from the P&S (purchase and sale agreement) if it is determined the site is too costly to clean."
Since the utility was not required by the state to clean up the property of the toxic mixture lurking underground, it did nothing.
Moreover, when the WRTA and others asked, NSTAR refused to participate in any cleanup even though it has significant assets for remediation. According to Northeast Utilities' 2013 annual report, the company had $31.4 million in reserve for manufactured gas-plant site remediation.
"We asked them as part of the process that they would participate in (the cleanup) and they said, 'Absolutely — no,' " Mr. O'Neil said.
In contrast, the company has done remediation on other MGP sites, most notably in Framingham, where it has spent $4.7 million, and nearly $1.5 million on a site in Milford. In the last 10 years, NSTAR spent nearly $15 million on remediation at eight sites.
"Regarding other MGP sites, any remediation we do or have done is based strictly on what is deemed necessary to be in compliance with the (DEP) regulations," said NSTAR's spokesman, Mr. Durand.
As their potential costs for cleaning up the property mounted, the WRTA voted against buying the land, said William Lehtola, WRTA board chairman, in a recent interview. As a result, Mr. O'Neil wrote a letter to NSTAR's Real Estate Specialist Timothy Powers on June 5, 2013, terminating the authority's purchase and sale agreement.
"This termination is based upon the Authority's review of existing site conditions, the results of environmental studies, and the presence of significant quantities of Hazardous Materials," he wrote.
The letter continued, "The Authority regrets that, upon diligent review of conditions at the Property, it is not suitable to the proposed use for a bus maintenance and transportation facility, therefore necessitating termination of the Agreement."
The rising cleanup costs were boxing in the WRTA. It was not allowed to use federal money promised for construction of the $65 million facility for remediation. Still interested in the site because of its closeness to the Union Station WRTA Hub, Mr. O'Neil summoned local and state power brokers to secure state money to clean the property, including then-Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray, a former Worcester mayor; MassDOT and environmental affairs officials; and then-Worcester City Manager Michael V. O'Brien.
Local and state officials sought to have NSTAR help in the cleanup costs, but the request was denied. U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, asked NSTAR to reconsider, but that proved fruitless.
With NSTAR unwilling and the WRTA unable to pay for the costs, the burden falls to the state's taxpayers. So, with $16 million promised from the state for the cleanup, the WRTA decided to purchase the property after all.
Mr. Augustus, the city manager, said, ultimately, the only way these blighted, abandoned brownfields get cleaned is with tax dollars.
"I think when you are talking about a $16 million cleanup, the odds that NSTAR would have any incentive to say, 'Let's remediate this site on our dime ... ' and then to think that they could turn it around and sell it, you know after they have put that kind of money in and get any return on it, so they are not incentivized to do anything with it," Mr. Augustus said.
He continued, "So I think the reality is probably a public entity, whether it be brownfield dollars, with what we are seeing here with the WRTA is going to have to be part of the mix to get this site cleaned up and back into some productive use, or we were just going to have that big eyesore, with contamination there for an indefinite period of time."
He cited the importance of revitalizing the neighborhood as a southern gateway to the city to make it more inviting.
Mr. McGovern still thinks it is a good deal for the taxpayer who will have to pay for the cleanup.
"I think at the end of the day, this is a good deal. In a perfect world, I wish NSTAR would have cleaned up the site entirely, but then the price of the property would be considerably higher," Mr. McGovern said.
Asked now if the WRTA should have bought the property, knowing what has transpired, "The answer is no," Mr. O'Neil said.
Left with the cleanup quagmire and asked if the WRTA is considering any legal action against NSTAR, Mr. O'Neil responded, "The WRTA is evaluating its remedies."
However, if any pollutants migrate from the site, the WRTA is protected, he said.
"We have broken the chain of liability. So no one can come after the WRTA. We have language in the deed that says that if something migrates off the site to a third party and devalues that property, that is on NSTAR, not the WRTA," the transit head said.
Related subject:Asbestos, other toxins prevalent at former gas plant