Several projects to benefit from Nyanza settlement

A view of the Sudbury River in Sudbury, part of the sprawling watershed in line for remediation funds for pollution from Nyanza in Ashland.
A view of the Sudbury River in Sudbury, part of the sprawling watershed in line for remediation funds for pollution from Nyanza in Ashland.
Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

For decades, it was literally a dumping ground.

Mercury, chemical waste, heavy metals, and used solvents leaked, or were intentionally dumped and buried, on a 35-acre property in Ashland that became one of the nation’s first Superfund pollution-cleanup sites. 

Though the Nyanza Color and Chemical Co. closed in 1978, the company and its predecessors left a legacy of contamination that extended along the Sudbury River watershed. But now, out of that tragedy comes a chance at rebirth.

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Eleven projects totaling roughly $3.7 million aim to improve and protect the area’s habitat and wildlife, restore waterways for fish, control invasive plants, and establish new trails and refuges.

Funded by a 1998 settlement between state and federal entities and Nyanza representatives, the projects extend beyond Ashland to communities that include Framingham, Southborough, Wayland, Westborough, and Sudbury.

“They’re diversified, and scattered throughout the watershed,” said Molly Sperduto, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and a trustee representative for the case. “The results will be really broad-reaching.”

One of the highest-ticket projects is $1 million to control invasive weeds, particularly water chestnut and purple loosestrife, in the Sudbury River. Money will be used to purchase a harvester and to implement biological methods, according to Sperduto, who works out of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s New England field office in Concord, N.H. 

“You have to be vigilant in coming back year after year to get rid of these, to really lick it,” said Sperduto.

Back on land, meanwhile, $540,000 will help to transform Framingham’s Stearns and Brackett reservoirs, which comprise 12 miles of shoreline and 175 acres of state-owned land, into wildlife preserves with boat access and walking trails.

The hope is that more land can be similarly protected with another $720,000 set aside for conservation. Trustees will seek proposals to conserve nesting and feeding areas for tree swallows, red-winged blackbirds, chestnut-sided warblers, and yellow warblers (to name a few bird species), Sperduto said.

Other projects include $400,000 to study fish passages on the Concord River; $300,000 to improve habitats for cold-water fish; and $168,000 to create boardwalks, a viewing platform, and provide canoes and kayaks to the public at the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. 

There’s also $145,000 for a boat launch and parking area on the Sudbury River in Southborough; $90,000 for school education programs; $75,000 for conservation in Belize that will help to improve wintering habitats of migratory songbirds that spend part of the year in the Sudbury watershed; and $34,000 to control invasive buckthorn at Greenways North Field in Wayland. 

The Nyanza Trustee Council — with representatives from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration — announced the projects early this month. Though the time frame is still in flux, officials said, the goal is to begin implementing the efforts as soon as possible.

The process began in 2008, with public meetings and solicitations that ultimately drew close to 50 ideas for improving the watershed’s health, according to Sperduto.

“We wanted to make sure we restored a diversity of resources, but also that we had projects throughout the watershed so that multiple communities, and multiple people, could benefit,” said Karen Pelto, natural resource damages coordinator for the state environmental agency.

The Ashland property was operated as an industrial site from 1917 to 1978, the final 13 years by Nyanza,  a dye and textile chemical manufacturer. Over the years, large volumes of industrial waste water containing high levels of acids and mercury were released into the environment, and another 45,000-plus tons of chemical sludge, used solvents, and other chemical waste were buried on the site, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund website.

In May 1998, the agency reached an $8 million settlement with PQ Corp., Nyacol Products Inc., and various landowners, according to an EPA announcement at the time; the money was split between federal and state entities.

Years of cleanup have included excavation and disposal of contaminants, layering of clean sediment in waterways, setting up ground-water monitoring systems, capping, and installing vapor-mitigation systems in nearby single- and multifamily-homes. Still, fish in the river remain contaminated with mercury.

But even so, local, state, and federal officials see the projects as a milestone in restoring the area.

“It’s a shame that we can’t get the mercury out of the water,” acknowledged Sudbury conservation agent Deborah Dineen, “but we will see a lot of important enhancements, restorations, and protections that will help offset it.”

Sudbury, for its part, plans to submit an application for $375,000 to purchase a roughly 1.5-acre parcel on Lincoln Lane, according to Dineen. If approved, the acquisition would be paid for through the $725,000 set aside for land conservation as part of the program.

It’s the last developable piece of land on the river in Sudbury, according to Dineen, sandwiched by town-owned land and the Great Meadows refuge. It’s a developable parcel with permits for construction, she said, but its owner hopes to sell it for conservation.

“Land acquisition is a very good way to permanently protect the river and its habitats and wildlife,” said Dineen.

Ultimately, with the various projects, “so many different types of species will benefit,” said Sperduto – including people. “They will hopefully have more access to the river and learn more about the river.”

Fostering such a connection, she and others noted, is just as important as restoring habitats and cleaning up waterways. Which is the goal of the Sudbury River Schools program, also being funded through the settlement.

The goal, according to Massachusetts Audubon Society official Kris Scopinich, will be to work with at least two schools in five Sudbury River communities over the course of three years. The program will educate both students and teachers about native plants and wildlife through various studies and visits to the river.

“These young citizens are the people that we need to be reaching,’’ Scopinich said, “so that these kinds of things don’t happen again.”