The Boston Phoenix
August 24 - 31, 2000


Who's Watching the Fox, continued

by Lisa Birk

What you can do

  • Check your town for hazardous waste sites. Go to Click on "Searchable Database." Type in your town's name.

  • Call Toxics Action Center's Matt Wilson to learn how to get involved with a specific site: (617) 747-4389.

  • Call DEP's help line at the Bureau of Waste Site Clean-up (617-338-2255). Ask DEP to enforce clean-up deadlines.

  • Call Governor Cellucci's constituent-services line (617-727-6250). Ask him to beef up DEP's budget.

Enos and Sylvia believe DEP has been more attentive since privatization, but it requires constant citizen pressure. Just to get Rockland fenced off, Sylvia says, "we called them 9999 times." And when citizens do call, Enos says, what do they hear? "They're understaffed. They're underbudgeted." Enos almost feels sorry for DEP staff. "I could spend eight hours a day, seven days a week on Rockland," he says. "This poor man [DEP's site manager] had five sites to keep abreast of." Neighbors confronted DEP's Gerard Martin at an August 1999 public meeting. They asked, What's taking so long?

"Sometimes things fall through the cracks," responded Martin, according to reports of the meeting. Critics say that's just what they're worried about: that with DEP short-staffed, underfunded, and responsible for overseeing the clean-up of more than 8000 contaminated sites, some inevitably will fall through the cracks.

Even sites that draw political attention sometimes take a long time to get cleaned up. In 1991, Senator Ted Kennedy sat in Judy Fittery's rocking chair and called sites like neighboring Rocco's Landfill in Tewksbury "underground Chernobyls." That same year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analyzed Rocco's contaminants. They found dozens -- some as high as 143 to 190 times acceptable limits. The EPA's report notes 23 wells supplying drinking water to 60,166 people in four communities within four miles of Rocco's.

But then the EPA agreed to let the state oversee Rocco's, according to Nancy Smith, the coordinator of the agency's National Priorities List. Rocco's was in DEP hands.

Rocco's, like Rockland, might seem like a site that would have shot to the top of DEP's list when the agency streamlined its priorities. But, as at Rockland, clean-up still lagged. Throughout the 1990s Steve Johnson, a DEP environmental engineer, worked diligently to get the landfill capped. (Fittery wrote Johnson and several DEP officials thank-you notes for their hard work.) Cost? Several million dollars. The owner was dead, so he couldn't pay. Tewksbury couldn't pay. And DEP? There's that clean-up budget -- but, Johnson says, "we have to use it judiciously."

Wilson says that's the problem. "Steve Johnson is a good guy. He tries. But there's no way he has the resources to deal with this stuff," he says. "My point is . . . these are the types of sites that pose public-health risk. These are the sites the state needs to deal with, and it's incapable of doing so."

Eight years later -- despite Johnson's best efforts -- "we still have an unlined, uncapped landfill that is a pollutant," says Tom Carbone, Tewksbury's director of public health.

So what happened? "There was nobody on the responsible-party end and the state didn't catch it," says the EPA's Smith. "Basically, it had fallen through the cracks."

The good news is the feds stepped back in, and the EPA took over the job. Treatment of Rocco's should begin by October.

At Rockland and Rocco's, the polluter failed to assess and clean the site on schedule, and the DEP proved unable to enforce the deadlines. It has an arsenal for enforcement -- audits, penalties, and an independent professional board that can discipline clean-up scientists, or "licensed site professionals" (LSPs) -- but in many cases, it's not enough.

SO THE watchdog agency doesn't have teeth, and the fox romps. If "fox" seems a loaded term, consider this: a 1998 DEP staff survey showed that 65 percent of staffers believed the polluters' scientists were "cutting corners" in the clean-up process. "Eighty percent of [LSPs] are fine," Wilson says. "But a certain segment are potentially compromising their professional standards."

How might they do that? "People who want not to find contamination at their site could try to look in the wrong places or analyze for the wrong chemicals, or use the wrong analysis or sampling method," says David Bass, retired director of technology development at Fluor Daniel GTI.

Cheryl Walsh, a 36-year-old mother of two, knows this firsthand. Over the past year, she fought not one but two hazardous waste sites in Stoneham. Both abut Stoneham Middle School, which her eldest child will attend in the fall.

Her first hazardous waste site, the former Mann Chemical Company site, had been closed out by DEP in 1998. Walsh wanted it reopened so the site could be tested for lead before owner Jeffrey Cataldo excavated and built an office building. (Cataldo was not the polluter, but as the current owner, he was considered "principally responsible" for clean-up.) Cataldo's LSP firm, Levine-Fricke, didn't do the test.

Walsh thought that odd, perhaps dangerous. Lead is notorious for causing learning disabilities, and since 1873 the site had hosted a succession of dirty industries -- including curriers, which prepare hides for market. Before going to the currier, hides were often tanned with lead. Wet hides could have dripped lead into the soil. Lead tests are cheap and not hard to do, according to toxicologist Callahan.

Walsh pushed. She wanted the Priority 13 test, which tests for lead and 12 other heavy metals, or at least the RCRA8 test, which tests for lead and seven metals. The LSP tested for four metals -- not including lead.

The results came back low -- which may indicate that lead was low. But we'll never know. The soil was excavated and the land built on. If there was lead in that soil, the 1999 construction could have kicked it into the air, forcing children at the middle school to inhale it.

According to Alexander Rothchild, a senior associate at Levine-Fricke, the site had received years of intense scrutiny from neighbors, the town, the school, and DEP, including a site-specific DEP audit. It was "managed in a manner which is protective of human health and environment," he said.

When asked, "So you're not worried about lead?" Rothchild responded, "I didn't comment on lead."

But Walsh's second experience shows that when the DEP does get involved, it can make a big difference.

Behind Stoneham Middle School lies an abandoned railroad bed owned by the town. Railroads are often contaminated with arsenic, a known carcinogen, which was used to preserve wooden railroad ties. The town planned to build an elementary school between the middle school and the railroad, which would require digging up the bed. So first the town contracted with an LSP to check the site. The LSP, Weston & Sampson Engineers (WSE), did not test the railroad bed for arsenic.

In January 2000, Walsh and her neighbors convened an emergency meeting and took matters into their own hands. Walsh and her husband -- with the aid of a consulting LSP, a cooler, sample jars, and instructions -- collected samples from the railroad themselves.

On February 1, the town's LSP firm presented its report. It concluded: "Based on future limited access, WSE does not recommend testing within the railroad right-of-way." In other words, it was safe.

Cheryl Walsh stood up with a hot-off-the-fax lab analysis of the railroad samples. Arsenic had come back at 54 parts per million (ppm) -- 14 ppm over DEP's "imminent hazard" level. Within weeks, WSE resigned.

DEP got involved. Scott Greene, the environmental engineer assigned to the case, is "a shining example [of a watchdog]," says Walsh. He's been out to the site, met with neighbors, insisted on high standards. Under DEP oversight, more testing was done. At least one sample came back with arsenic at 550 ppm.

No one from WSE returned phone calls for comment.

The lesson of Stoneham's railroad bed is this: when DEP watchdogs a clean-up, and citizens are alert, the system works.

But too often, DEP resources are spread thin, and clean-up falls on the shoulders of citizens.

Go to the homes of Enos and Sylvia in Middleborough or Fittery in Tewksbury or Walsh in Stoneham, and they will hand you grocery bags of documents. Questions are scrawled in the margins. Stick-on notes tab the pages. Neighbors like these have spent nights and Sunday afternoons learning chemistry, law, public health, and clean-up technology. Walsh estimates that she's monitored the two Stoneham sites full time for a year. Sylvia has monitored Rockland for 32 years. "I'm not an expert," says Walsh. "But one of the largest flaws I see [with privatization] is the polluter is paying the expert. You're putting [the site] back in the hands of the polluter." She also worries about DEP overload: "They have too many sites . . . too many that fall through the cracks."

Says Sylvia: "Most DEP people have their arms open, but they need help." But DEP just completed a one-and-a-half-year review of privatization, and nowhere in its surprisingly candid 26 pages does it mention increasing funding. "They had the facts to push for more funding," says Matt Wilson, "and if ever there was an opportunity for them to do it, this [report] would have been it." Wilson, despite his respect for many at DEP, is worried about the cracks in the system.

Because when cases fall through, not every site has a Cheryl Walsh, a Judy Fittery, a Vic Sylvia, or a Russell Enos to catch them.

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Lisa Birk can be reached at