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Ecology sleuth is local, global

Natick engineer tracks pollution

The photo was taken inside a car, with the flash reflecting off the window almost too brightly to make out a gaggle of white ducks just outside.

Marco Kaltofen is in the picture, a passenger smiling somewhat uncomfortably.

"That's in Russia, and we were stuck in the mud," he said. "Two days later, that duck farm was quarantined for avian flu."

There's amusement, not alarm, in his voice when he tells the story. That's because hazardous conditions are all part of a day's work for Kaltofen.

The Natick resident is a renowned expert on pollution who travels the world to perform tests on air, soil, and water. Providing proof of environmental destruction has been his business since graduating from Boston University in the 1980s.

He's also active in his own town, bringing his expertise to bear for more than a decade on the all-volunteer Restoration Advisory Board that oversees the federal Superfund cleanup at Natick's Soldiers Systems Center.

"He really knows his stuff," said Robert Becnel, a New Orleans lawyer who worked with Kaltofen recently to document a major oil spill caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Becnel said Kaltofen's "fingerprinting" of a crude-oil spill, and his expert testimony, helped win a major class action settlement. "We hired a number of experts, and we had the highest confidence in him. He taught us a lot."

Kaltofen mapped a 10-square-mile area, differentiating among types of oil spilled during the flooding by several sources, including auto repair businesses and a major tank failure at the Murphy Oil Co.

Kaltofen's data indicated that Murphy Oil's pollution had spread farther than the company had admitted, a finding that was key to a $330 million class action settlement affecting 6,700 property owners, said Becnel.

Kaltofen's chemical engineering company, Boston Chemical Data Corp., is often called into action by the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, a Seattle-based watchdog organization.

His work for that group has taken him recently to Russian towns in the Ural Mountains that are longtime sites of Soviet nuclear development -- and mishaps.

Kaltofen said he was moved by the plight of the people he met during a recent trip in which he tested radioactivity in the towns of Chelyabinsk and Muslimova.

"These people know about radioactivity. They know exactly what's in the water they're drinking, but nobody's bringing them Evian," he said.

Kaltofen said the US government is working on a deal to send its spent fuel from nuclear reactors there, too. "Most people don't wonder where their used plutonium goes. It's got to go somewhere."

It was during that trip that Kaltofen found himself on a duck farm that had a completely different problem, one he didn't realize at the time. It was a possible site of avian flu contamination.

Tom Carpenter, nuclear oversight program director with the Government Accountability Project, said that soon after he and Kaltofen visited the towns, authorities agreed to begin evacuating residents.

"There's no question Marco's testing contributed to the success there," Carpenter said. "The authorities can't help but notice when American scientists show up, and they know what follows is bad publicity. It's easier to comply than to maintain an untenable position."

Kaltofen and GAP are now looking into decades of chemical waste dumping near the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico.

Kaltofen smiles when he talks about the waste disposal techniques he said were favored there. "Los Alamos is built on these mesas," he said. "What they did was called 'kick and roll' disposal. That's why they named one area 'Acid Canyon.' "

Carpenter hired Kaltofen after reading a 1988 novel, "Zodiac," an eco-thriller about a guerrilla-style environmental activist trying to stop the pollution of Boston Harbor.

The author, Neal Stephenson, a neighbor of Carpenter's, attended Boston University with Kaltofen and dedicated the book to him. Kaltofen brushed the book off as a work of fiction, but Carpenter said he sees many similarities between the fictional protagonist and Kaltofen, from his sense of humor to his creativity.

"He comes up with smart options that sometimes reveal inadequacies in government systems," said Carpenter.

Kaltofen said his involvement at Natick Labs was spurred when he realized that pollution from the lab might be seeping into the ground water and into the town's water system -- and affecting his young family.

"I could fill the bathtub and I knew the Army's chemicals were wafting up from the water and my kid could breathe them," he said.

Natick Labs never admitted to polluting the town drinking water, but the Army paid Natick more than $3 million for a new water treatment system in 1999, five years into the cleanup at the lakeside campus.

People are drinking cleaner water "and that's a good thing. Whether they admit it or not is not my worry. I'm only concerned that it got fixed," Kaltofen added.

Along with getting the Army to test more sites on the lab's campus on the shores of Lake Cochituate, he's prodded Army officials to stop using an incinerator there and to be proactive about warning people, particularly non-English speaking immigrants, that fish are contaminated.

Still, Kaltofen said, "Environmental cleanup in Natick is not the Army's number one priority right now" and more work needs to be done.

John McHugh, the full-time Superfund site officer for the government, acknowledged that things sometimes get tense between the community representatives and Labs officials, but he said progress is being made toward the projected 2029 completion date for ground water cleanup.

McHugh noted that 15 individual sites on the campus that were polluted by everything from PCBs to benzene have been restored.

"A Superfund site is a lot more complicated, and the process takes a lot more time than an oil spill," McHugh said.

Now attention is turning to one of Kaltofen's longtime priorities, cleaning up PCB-contaminated lake sediments.

Natick's environmental compliance officer, Bob Bois, a former official with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said Kaltofen plays an important role in many environmental issues affecting Natick.

"He avoids the rubber stamp mentality," Bois said. "Whether you agree or disagree with him, he makes you think, and that makes for a better discussion and decision."