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. . . City-owned land . . . has value that must be measured . . .
Grace asbestos and Neville Manor
Cambridge's industrial legacy
Cambridge, Massachusetts is one of the nation's oldest industrial cities as well as one the nation's most densely populated ones. Almost since its inception, the City, known internationally for its fine universities, quirky squares and lovely residential areas, produced other things besides famous scholars. Candy, ice, bricks, camera equipment and meat (Cambridge slaughterhouses coined the phase 'Porterhouse Steak after Porter Square) are just a few of the items that have left Cambridge for the wide world beyond the city limits.
Unfortunately for today's Cambridge residents, just because a manufactured item left the city does not mean that the residue from the manufacturing process left town as well. From East Cambridge's Com Energy site to Cambridgeport's Polaroid site to North Cambridge's W. R. Grace site, property owners, environmental professionals, residents, regulators and city officials are continuously trying to determine what threats site contamination may pose to neighbors and the city as a whole. In particular, at the Grace site a coalition of concerned neighbors called the Alewife Study Group (known in their non-profit status as Alewife Neighbors, Inc.), working with the city and with assistance from the state, has been aggressively asking questions for years about site contamination. Recently, this questioning, along with a lot of legwork and research by local residents, helped pressure Grace into testing its property for Asbestos contamination.
Asbestos at the Grace site
Although previous site investigation and contaminant testing by Grace's Licensed Site Professional (LSP) had not turned up any asbestos, this latest round of testing, which was focused specifically on Asbestos, located asbestos levels of up to 20% in roughly 20% of the samples taken. In addition, a separate round of testing on adjacent city-owned land, much of which is a playing field and all of which is loosely called "Russell Field," found slightly lower levels of asbestos in the subsurface soils.
The appearance of asbestos at and near the W.R. Grace site this late in the site's cleanup process is a major stumbling block for site remediation and development. While experts acknowledge that sub-surface asbestos poses little threat as long as it doesn't get airborn, it is not at all clear that any remediation or development for the site will not create an asbestos dust hazard for the thousands of residents who live near the site. The State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) gave Grace about 16 months to come up with a new remediation plan when asbestos was found at the Grace site, but now that asbestos has also been found at Russell Field, it is not clear what DEP will do.
Local frustrations are building
At this stage in the game, local residents are getting pretty fed up. A small pond adjacent to the W.R. Grace site but owned by the MDC was recently found to have some of the same contaminants present on the Grace site in concentrations regulated by Massachusetts hazardous waste cleanup laws. Soil gas testing indicates that chemicals present on the Grace site, as well as in other industrial areas, are present below the surface of Russell Field. Further testing should help quantify this threat, but these chemicals, along with the recently discovered presence of asbestos, have the neighbors wondering what the hell is going on. Previously accused of being paranoid, hysterical, self-promoting or just plain wrong by the Cambridge City Manager, local pundits or Grace's agents themselves, these citizen environmentalists are finding that the fingers of contamination seem to be spreading further through their neighborhood with every new question they ask.
While none of this newly discovered contamination can be conclusively linked to operations at the W.R Grace site at this point, many, if not most, of the neighborhood residents have read of Grace's exploits in Woburn, Massachusetts. The thought that this chemical giant may be operating in the same manner right next door to them has neighbors worried. For example, this year's heavy rains, following close on the heels of other major and minor flooding events, makes neighbors question the validity of the groundwater flow and flooding studies Grace commissioned. Combined with new revelations about asbestos and chemical contamination at or near the site and the highly publicized stories about Woburn, virtually no one in the area feels comfortable that the contamination threat posed by the Grace site and adjacent areas has been properly identified or addressed.
David v. Goliath
Grace is a giant corporation with seemingly limitless resources to push its version of events at or near its site. And environmental remediation, like any other profession, has plenty of experts willing to interpret data in a manner most favorable to the client. The neighbors, led by firefighters, carpenters, artists and some environmental professionals working pro bono or at reduced rates, have far fewer resources with which to disseminate its version of how seriously the area is contaminated and why. It is a classic case of David versus Goliath, with neighbors making up with grit what they lack in money. And so far, David is at least staying even in this match.
At this point, the only thing that definite is that for the people whose houses overlook the grass and trees and puddles of the Grace property and Russell Field, or whose basements flood with water they believe is coming from the direction of the Grace site, or whose children play on Russell Field's dirt and grass surfaces, the uneasy feelings are sure to keep growing.
Neville Manor giveaway
In a related episode, the Cambridge City Council recently voted to ask the State Legislature to allow the City to give a little over eight acres of city land by the Fresh Pond Reservoir to a consortium of groups planning to expand elder health care at the site. In a city as densely populated as Cambridge, the loss of this acreage, which currently houses Neville Manor, for the duration of a 99-year lease presents a major land use dilemma. Because the city already owns this land, the health care consortium gets it for free. In any cost-benefit analysis of where to place such facilities, getting millions of dollars of land for free is sure to tip the scales. This land, though, is part of the City's largest open area and is adjacent to the city's fresh water supply. While the health care consortium may be paying nothing for the land, it is certainly worth far more than that. In fact, in a recent letter to Cambridge City Council, the Sierra Club, Greater Boston Group, stated that any such cost-benefit analysis is inherently and fatally flawed. City-owned land, whether it be a grassy park or a wooded watershed, or even a parking lot, has value that must be measured and accounted for in order to have an honest public dialogue on land use options.
At this point, the city has created a Neville Manor advisory committee consisting of a variety of interested parties, including local citizens and the project's proponents. This committee is tasked with providing an advisory opinion on the three development options currently on the table for Neville Manor. As things currently stand, one of these options includes some off-site development and all three of them will return any unused parts of the 8.3 acre lease to the Fresh Pond Reservation when the Neville Manor expansion is complete. Exactly how much of the leased land the project will need for buildings, utilities, parking, landscaping and so forth is likely to remain uncertain until the final brick is laid and the last shrub is planted, making this advisory committee's task especially daunting as it reviews a constantly shifting proposal. Further, other city Committees have frequently been plagued with problems ranging from violating the state's Open Meeting Law to poor coordination of meeting times and places. Given the strong feelings on all sides of the Neville Manor proposal, these committee meetings promise to be, putting it mildly, quite energetic. In the final analysis, what happens at Neville Manor may well be based more on political considerations than on environmental or health care ones.
The Grace connection
But how, one may ask, is this Neville Manor property transfer related to the W.R. Grace site contamination? It turns out that the environmental consulting firm that managed not to find asbestos at the W. R. Grace site despite the site's history of asbestos use and the numerous tests they conducted is the same consulting firm that determined expanding elder care facilities at Neville Manor should not pose a threat to the City's adjacent water supply. It further appears that the consultant for the Neville Manor project who determined that there was no other viable siting option for this expansion is also the major proponent for a massive office park planned (and formerly permitted) for the W.R. Grace site.
These coincidences may not mean a thing, but for many of us who have watched the W.R. Grace contamination story unfold, that some of the same players have major roles in the Neville Manor expansion is a troubling thought indeed.
For questions concerning either of these issues, please feel free to contact Craig Kelley at 617-354-8353 or via email at Craig@CraigKelley.org.