The Boston Phoenix
August 24 - 31, 2000


Who's Watching the Fox?

The Mass. Department of Environmental Protection's privatization plan puts polluters in charge of clean-up. Critics say that's like putting the fox
in charge of the hen house.

by Lisa Birk

BAD NEIGHBORS: Rockland Industries' closed-down plant on Plymouth Street in Middleborough has drawn complaints for more than a quarter-century. If privatization was supposed to make DEP so efficient, why has the plan to mop up the site's toxic chemicals been stalled for 13 years?

Russell Enos first noticed the smell back in 1973. Monday through Friday it was ammonia. Weekends, he smelled camphor, mothballs, odors he couldn't identify -- and rings formed in the bathtub and the toilet. The laundry came out rusty. He talked to his neighbors in Middleborough, where his yard adjoined Rockland Industries, Inc., a Plymouth Street chemical company. They had noticed the same thing. From 1975 to 1978, a handful of neighbors made about five calls each to the Massachusetts Department of Quality Engineering (DEQE). DEQE staff didn't work weekends. By the time someone came to inspect, the smell was gone.

Enos didn't know it, but M. Victor Sylvia, a neighbor a mile away, had also noticed something odd. In 1968, two years after Rockland arrived, all the fish had died in Purchade Brook, which flows through the 50-acre Rockland site into the Taunton River. First the brook trout, then the sunfish, perch, pickerel, and herring. Sylvia complained to the Department of Natural Resources, then to DEQE, which in 1989 became the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). He didn't get much help. When staff returned phone calls or wrote, Sylvia says, "they played games with words."

Rockland closed in 1980, and the site remained dirty. "But it didn't smell anymore and I had town water," Enos says, so he stopped worrying and concentrated on raising his family.

But while Enos raised his family, DEQE had come out to the site and taken samples of the groundwater, which officials considered to be potential drinking water. Its report, dated February 27, 1980, found at least one sample with trichloroethylene (TCE) at 85,000 parts per billion (ppb). The permissible standard for drinking water, set in 1989, is just five ppb. DEQE also found dichlorobenzene (DCB) at 17,000 ppb. "That would certainly be too high," says Barbara Callahan, senior toxicologist at University Research in New Hampshire.

According to the respected Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which documents health effects of various chemicals, long-term exposure to TCE at high levels can cause liver and kidney damage; tumors of the liver, kidneys, lungs, and male sex organs; and possibly leukemia. The agency notes on its Web site that DCB "may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen." Although epidemiology is notoriously complex and most research is conducted on animals rather than on humans, it seems clear that these chemicals are dangerous. TCE, for example, is one of the likely culprits in the cluster of childhood leukemia cases in Woburn. A 1989 study by the environmental firm Hidell-Eyster Technical Services, Inc., confirmed that contaminants including DCB had permeated Rockland's groundwater. Enos didn't hear about either the 1980 or the 1989 study until last year.

In 1985, 17 years after the fish died, 10 years after Enos complained of strange smells, and two years after DEQE launched its first statewide clean-up program, DEQE demanded clean-up "on or before December 15, 1985." It was not the first clean-up order, and it would not be the last. But as of August 2000, 15 years later, Rockland is still dirty.

Some say that's not DEP's fault. Back in the '80s, DEQE was monitoring the clean-up of thousands of polluted sites across Massachusetts, from gas stations to toxic dumps. Site owners funded the process themselves, but they had to get the agency's signoff on every step, from the plan to analyze for contaminants to the cleaning itself. Buried in mountains of paper, state officials couldn't keep up. As a result, the owners of sites like Rockland could avoid cleaning for years and get away with it. DEP had its hands full dealing with cooperative polluters.

All those dirty sites worried environmentalists and DEP staff. And private owners weren't too happy about the lengthy process, which trapped their properties in regulatory limbo. So DEP staffers, public-health professionals, environmental lawyers, environmentalists, clean-up scientists, and industrialists came up with an innovative compromise: privatize most DEP clean-up operations.

In theory, this made some sense: instead of DEP scientists shepherding polluters through the multi-step clean-up process, the polluters' scientists would do the job. That way, DEP's resources -- its budget and staff scientists -- would be freed to tackle the most toxic sites. And the plan appeased the private sector. So in July 1992, Governor William Weld signed into law the redesigned Waste Site Clean-up Program. The new rules went into effect on October 1, 1993.

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Lisa Birk can be reached at