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Park's naming holds a lesson

Lori Ehrlich and Jan Schlichtmann visit the future park. (LISA POOLE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

It's a rare occasion that city officials forgo the chance to name a new park and, instead, assign students the opportunity to make a little local history.

But that is what's happening this month in Beverly, where students will be able to submit names for a 15-acre park on the Beverly-Wenham line. The names will be given to the City Council, which will decide which one best describes the new park, slated to open in the spring.

"We think this will be a great educational experience for the kids, and, hopefully, they'll do some research on the site," said City Councilor Tim Flaherty, who proposed the idea.

Young researchers would learn that the site was mined for sand and gravel in the 1940s and 1950s, and used as an illegal fly-ash landfill until the 1970s. They'll also discover that for more than 50 years the fly ash -- trucked in from a coal-burning power plant in Salem -- was in the path of a brook flowing into Wenham Lake, which provides 80,000 residents of Beverly, Salem, and Wenham with drinking water. The property was owned by the two Vitale brothers, and taken by the city in 1980 for unpaid property taxes.

For decades, residents suspected fly ash had floated into the lake. And six years ago, Beverly lawyer Jan Schlichtmann and a Marblehead environmentalist, Lori Ehrlich, confirmed it. The cofounders of the Wenham Lake Watershed Association invited dozens of residents and officials to the lake in January 2001, and drilled a hole in the ice. Schlichtmann pushed in a container several feet below to the bottom. When he pulled the container out, it was filled with fly ash -- which was later found to contain arsenic and other toxic materials. While arsenic was in the water, it was determined that the levels were within state and federal drinking water limits.

Still, after word got out about the fly ash, New England Power, which owned the Salem power plant at the time of the dumping, agreed to spend $5 million cleaning up the landfill and lake.

"We made a decision to set up and deal with material that was handled not as it would be today, and we didn't want to go through a legal battle that could have cost the same amount of money," said Michael Lotti, a project manager for National Grid, the successor to New England Power. He oversaw the cleanup, which took almost six years to design and implement.

Schlichtmann, who represented several Woburn families in a toxic-waste lawsuit in the 1980s that was featured in a book and movie, "A Civil Action," praised National Grid's decision. "Litigation would have been long and protracted," he said, "and nothing's certain."

Fly-ash landfills are legal in Massachusetts, with fly ash used as a mix in concrete. Still, the Beverly landfill had been cited on several occasions by the state for operating without a permit.

After years of planning, workers began to clean the site in 2005, flattening 40-foot-high mounds of black fly ash that covered the 15- acre landfill. Once flattened, the fly ash was capped with a quarter-inch-thick fabric, another 12 inches of sand and then 6 inches of loam. The site has been seeded, and will contain two athletic fields, a parking lot, and a bathroom facility.

Workers also rerouted the brook away from the landfill so it could no longer carry fly ash toward the drinking water supply. Using a backhoe and other construction machinery, they pulled 40,000 cubic yards of fly ash from the brook, Wenham Lake, and from 16 acres of wetlands. In addition, 52,000 new plants were included in the wetlands restoration, Lotti said.

Beverly Mayor William Scanlon Jr. praised the addition of open space. "With this, we get two brand-new, full-size athletic fields, along with rest rooms in close proximity, along with a good parking area; so, in that sense, this is just wonderful," he said.

On a recent day, geese rested on the athletic fields, and clear water flowed from the brook that had carried fly ash into the lake.

Ehrlich, who helped found HealthLink, a North Shore environmental organization that pushed for the clean up, pointed to the green fields and brook where 40-foot towers of fly ash once stood. "One of the things that drove me in this effort is that we could set an example that it could be done; citizens can take action and actually make a positive change for their own quality of living and for future generations."

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