Park cleanup scrutinized for impact

Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said the fields were closed as a precaution. Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said the fields were closed as a precaution.
By Stewart Bishop
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2011

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The Salem Conservation Commission will visit McGrath Park today in an effort to determine the impact of a proposal by the city to deal with contaminated soil found in two of the park’s athletic fields.

Conservation Commission member Michael Blier said the city is proposing to cap the contaminated soccer fields with 2 to 3 feet of clean soil. Blier said the commission needs to consider what impact that would have on the adjacent wetlands.

“We’ll be looking at how it will impact the resource area,’’ Blier said. “We’re not going to critique the strategy.’’

Blier said part of the proposed cleanup also includes removing debris and waste material from the bordering wetlands. The site was originally a landfill and contained some industrial waste before the city converted it into a park in the early 1980s.

The visit by the Conservation Commission is the latest move by authorities since the two heavily used athletic fields at McGrath Park were closed on May 4, after an engineering firm discovered elevated levels of two metals - lead and cadmium - in the soil at the park’s lower fields.

The contamination was discovered as crews were examining the possibility of installing sewage pipes for a bathroom at the park.

Prolonged exposure to lead can cause a number of health problems, especially in children, including damage to the kidneys and central nervous system as well as behavioral and other problems, according to state health officials.

According to Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s office, there was no risk to human health and the two lower fields were closed as a precautionary measure.

“Based on conservative analysis, the potential exposure to the metals is low and the levels do not pose an immediate risk to human health,’’ Driscoll said in a statement at the time.

City officials hope to have a final design plan in place to deal with the contamination within weeks, said Jason Silva, chief aide to Driscoll.

“We’re trying to move this forward as soon as possible,’’ Silva said. “These fields have the heaviest use in the city.’’

Shortly after the contamination was discovered, the City Council voted unanimously to appropriate $50,000 requested by Driscoll for additional testing of the soil and the development of a plan to amend the site.

“Work has been done to scope out the boundaries of the contamination, and a final remediation plan will be in place in a matter a weeks,’’ Silva said.

Chip Bott, president of Salem Youth Soccer’s in-town program, said if the lower fields are not reopened by the fall season, it could pose a logistical problem for the league.

“Those are our primary fields,’’ Bott said. “Right now it’s fine, we don’t use the fields over the summer, but come fall, it could be a different situation.’’

Bott said the league is looking into other fields around the city before the season kicks off in the second week of September.

“We’re hoping the city will let us explore a couple other options,’’ Bott said.

Driscoll said the city would work closely with the local youth soccer leadership to identify alternate locations for the league to play.

Bott said overall, parents have been very understanding of the problem.

“We have well over 200 kids in the program,’’ he said. “In general, there was not a lot of negative reaction from parents.’’

Silva said assuming the Conservation Commission approves the proposal, the city will file plans with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and plans to have the project out to bid soon.