Taxpayers have been spared a huge bill for the cleanup of Lake Quannapowitt thanks to a $1.5 million insurance settlement and the promise of $500,000 in state environmental funds, which would cover most of the pollution remediation plan.
Town officials expect the cleanup and ongoing monitoring will cost the town $1.7 million to $2.4 million over the next five years.
Foul-smelling deposits of coal tar -- and the headache over who was responsible for cleaning up the toxic waste -- surfaced six years ago when Wakefield resident Douglas Heath began probing the lake's depths to check for possible causes of seasonal algae blooms.
The pollution is concentrated in a one-third acre area of Hartshorne Cove just off the end of the boat ramp at the end of Veteran's Field where the water is 3 or 4 feet deep, Heath said. The source of the pollution was traced back to the Wakefield Municipal Gas & Light Department site via a trench that runs through Veteran's Field.
Heath, an environmental scientist for the federal Environmental Protection Agency who was out in his kayak on his own time, alerted town officials who then consulted with state officials on how to proceed, recalled Selectman Al Turco.
After the town's engineering consultants analyzed the extent of the problem, the state Department of Environmental Protection ruled a year ago the town and its energy utility were responsible for paying for the cost of neutralizing the pollution.
Turco said he then took on the challenge of negotiating a cost-sharing plan because he recognized the size of the bill could easily swamp Wakefield's municipal budget.
''We understood right off whether it was the town outright or the light department, that the town in the end was the responsible party," Turco said. ''I saw this as a major potential liability for the town since we could have possibly had to exhaust our entire stabilization fund and then some to pay for this."
While the electric utility is a town department and its ratepayers are primarily town residents, Turco noted it operates on its own self-sustaining budget that includes insurance premium payments to the Massachusetts Municipal Utility Self-Insurance Trust Fund.
In discussing the issue with representatives of the light department, Turco discovered the trust fund had in turn contracted with XL Environmental Insurance to provide up to $1 million in coverage for environmental liabilities, such as the coal deposits in Lake Quannapowitt, according to Nicholas J. Scobbo, the attorney representing the trust fund.
Scobbo said XL has agreed to pay the first $1 million in costs and the trust fund will pay up to $500,000.
With the $1.5 million insurance payments and the anticipated state grant, town officials said they have reduced the town's financial liability through negotiation rather than costly litigation.
''Getting the insurance companies on board was huge because up until then, it looked like we were going to have to go to court to get this settled," Turco said.
The pollution dates from the early days of the last century, when a private company burned coal to make the gas that powered the town's street lights. The plant sat near the shores of Lake Quannapowitt, now the site of the municipal light department, Turco said.
''The byproducts of that process were routinely dumped into the lake, where they settled on the bottom," Turco said.
Tests by engineers hired by the town confirmed the sediment contains petroleum byproducts and other cancer-causing toxins that continue to leach into the lake.
Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the pollution isn't serious enough for the state to ban swimming altogether but does represent a potential hazard if a swimmer were to step into the sediment since the coal tar is difficult to wash off exposed skin.
''We don't consider it an imminent environmental threat but serious enough that it has to be resolved," Coletta said.
The remediation plan, which the DEP has approved, calls for sealing the sediment in place and capping exposed areas in the Veteran's Field parking lot and on the utility site with asphalt. The plan also calls for installing a series of wells to capture any discharge beneath the light department building.
Scobbo, the attorney for the utility trust fund, said its environmental insurance carrier agreed to foot a portion of the cleanup bill because the alternative would have been a lawsuit with the Town of Wakefield suing its own subsidiary department.
Turco said he is now turning his attention to convincing the governor's office to fund the $500,000 grant awarded to the town by the state Legislature as part of last year's environmental bond bill, he said.
Scobbo warned the cost to buy environmental insurance coverage has increased because of these types of payouts, an expense that could eventually be passed onto ratepayers.
Caroline Louise Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org