Monday, January 15, 2018

In South Framingham, ‘hope springs eternal’ for cleanup of polluted sites

From the Metrowest Daily News
By Jonathan Dame, Metrowest Daily News Staff

Jan 14, 2018 - On the first Saturday after the Fourth of July in 2013, Judy Grove visited Pelham Apartments to learn for herself: Where do the children living in the subsidized housing complex go to play?

During her visit, she suggested a few possibilites, including nearby Mary Dennison Park.“Where’s Mary Dennison Park?” Grove recalled one the kids asking.

For the past six years since becoming Town Meeting Chair of Precinct 15 and recently elected as City Councilor for District 8, Judith Grove has worked tirelessly to bring attention to the concerns of the Southside conditions and its residents. Judy has brought awareness of the extent of contamination such as at Mary Dennison Park and the land at 350 Irving Street. She has fought for safe and healthy playgrounds and improve recreation for children. Judy has been persistent in her efforts to revive a 15 year effort and has been successful in making a skatepark become a reality. The news article that has appeared on the front page of the Sunday Metro West Daily News has detailed her work over the years. There are encouraging signs that problems in the Environmental Justice neighborhood will be corrected.

She told them the park was a half-mile away from where they lived in South Framingham, and that it had a few softball fields and basketball courts, and a playground for toddlers.

“Oh, it has a name?” the kids said, according to Grove. “Oh, we don’t go there.”

This was Judy Grove’s first foray into Framingham politics. Town Meeting had just rejected several citizens petitions for community and recreational programs in South Framingham. So she and others set their sights on redesigning Mary Dennison

The group eventually collected hundreds of signatures to improve the park, proposing picnic tables and a paved walking path, skateboarding ramps and a playground for older kids. They had momentum.

Then the town discovered the park’s soil was contaminated with lead. The tot lot was temporarily shuttered, its dirty soil hauled away and replaced, but most of the 17 acres were considered safe enough to keep using.

Four years later, Mary Dennison remains polluted. Nearby, even more hazardous toxins have leeched into the soil and groundwater of General Chemical’s former facility at 133 Leland St. and the one-time gas manufacturing plant at 350 Irving St.

But some things have changed. Grove is now a city councilor representing District 8. She serves alongside District 9 Councilor Edgardo Torres, whose district includes those three polluted sites. They were both appointed to the new council’s subcommittee on the environment.

In South Framingham, the community’s poorest and most racially diverse area, many residents are hoping the new city government will be able to improve their lives in ways the town government could not.

Removing the chemicals and heavy metals from the three polluted properties would be one way to do that. But environmental remediation is complicated, especially when private companies are involved, and the city cannot afford to clean the sites on its own.

Many in South Framingham are optimistic the city government will be more responsive to the area, whose residents have long felt underrepresented.

“Hope springs eternal. I think it will be a little different because there is more of a representative government now,” said Richard Baritz, who represented Precinct 17 in Town Meeting for a decade. “But it depends on the powers of the people that got elected.”

Chemicals, sludge, debris contaminate the water
and banks of Beaver Dam Brook. 
The brook runs adjacent to Mary Dennison Park.

Mary Dennison Park

The Dennison Manufacturing Company, a paper maker, began dumping its waste at the Beaver Street site in the early 1900s. The town later also used the property as a dump, where instead of piling the trash high, the town burned it.

In 1960, the town began constructing the park that’s there today, after laying loam and pouring fresh dirt atop the charred garbage. Environmental regulations didn’t really exist back then.

Children and adults have played on the soccer and softball fields for decades. In 1990, and again in 2000, the town learned that some of the soil was contaminated, but it appears those incidents failed to trigger a more comprehensive response to the problem.

The discovery of toxins – primarily lead – in the soil in 2014 has complicated efforts to redesign the park. Nothing can be done until there is a long-term remediation plan, but nearly four years later, one still does not exist.

“We are planning to do a round of community outreach to give people information on the environmental cleanup that we’re doing as well as the final park design,” Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Director James Snyder said. “We’re still generating the information that we need in order to properly move forward with a remediation and park design effort.”

The city and the Avery Dennison Corp., the successor to the original manufacturing company, are expected to submit a final report on the results of comprehensive testing to the state in early 2018.

“Mary Dennison can be a story ... about cleaning up a much-needed park and improving a neighborhood,” Grove said. “It’s not just because you should do the right thing, it’s also good for our community.”

General Chemical

The former hazardous waste recycling and transfer facility at 133 Leland St., which previously stored and treated chemicals, oil, debris and other toxic waste, closed in 2012. The groundwater is polluted with chlorinated solvents, primarily trichloroethylene, or TCE, that are harmful to breathe and ingest.

Complicating matters, General Chemical told the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) last spring that it was broke, and could no longer pay for cleanup. (The Leland Street facility was its only operation.) The state seized $1.8 million the company had previously set aside, but the cost of remediation is expected to far exceed that.

A bid to get the federal government to take over the site through the Superfund program failed last fall. But the DEP and the state attorney general’s office are investigating whether companies formerly affiliated with General Chemical could be made to pay.

General Chemical for years had a close relationship with Cycle Chem Inc. and Clean Venture Inc. The trio shared a president and a website, as well as some staff and offices.

Late last year, the state issued preliminary notices of responsibility to those two companies for the Leland Street contamination, and asked each entity for information on its operations.

The companies have until month’s end to respond to those queries. In the meantime, the DEP has hired a contractor who will submit a report within the next few weeks detailing how much remediation it can get done with the $1.8 million available.

350 Irving Street

The 22-acre property was the site of a gas manufacturing plant for roughly 80 years, beginning in the 1880s. Over the decades, waste from the operations turned wetlands dry.

The Sudbury Aqueduct, which is owned by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and operated as a backup during emergencies, bisects the site, and Beaver Dam Brook, which flows into Natick’s Fisk Pond, runs through wetlands on the property.

Eversource bought the land about a decade ago, and leases it to several commercial tenants, including Landscape Depot. Toxins such as petroleum, tar and cyanide have been detected in the soil and groundwater.

The utility has undertaken some preliminary remediation efforts, when hazards were discovered that posed an immediate threat to public health or, if left untreated, could have polluted the site further. But most of the cleanup work has yet to be done.

The DEP has at times sparred with Eversource over some of the specifics of the company’s testing and response actions.

But after several months of behind-the-scenes talks, the state is expected to issue a letter to Eversource in the coming weeks that will bring both parties one step closer to developing a comprehensive clean-up plan.

The path forward

The DEP launched a “South Framingham Initiative” in 2015, aiming to hone efforts to clean Mary Dennison Park, 350 Irving St. and the General Chemical site – and to prevent any further contamination in South Framingham, where nearly 100 businesses subject to hazardous waste regulations (mostly auto shops) continue to operate.

“It’s been 2 1/2 years and people want to see more tangible results,” Steve Johnson, of the DEP’s Bureau of Waste Cleanup, acknowledged. “They don’t want to hear we’re working behind the scenes and doing a lot of talking and sending emails.”

“We’re trying to make sure that the companies that have the liabilities are doing what they need to do to come up with a comprehensive and permanent remediation to these sites.”

Last month, Eversource reached a $500,000 settlement with the Board of Selectmen over allegations the company failed to properly clean the Irving Street site. Grove and other South Framingham residents want the money to be put toward environmental efforts, such as cleanup work or possibly the hiring of a sustainability director.

Mayor Yvonne Spicer, in an interview Friday, said she agreed the funds should be used for a purpose related to why the money was being paid to the city in the first place. “They came as a result of this hazardous situation and the funds should be used in that direction to alleviate it,” Spicer said of the settlement.

Spicer is actively investigating whether the city should create a sustainability director, including whether the government already employs one or more people who do the work of such a position already.

More broadly, Spicer pledged to engage residents “in a way that’s never happened before.” One of the first places she visited after her election in November was the Pelham Apartments in South Framingham, she said.

“One of the things I can say is we’re going to take the blinders off and we’re going to address the challenges.”

Jonathan Dame can be reached at 508-626-3919 or