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‘Serious plume’ cited at toxic site

Board, state press General Chemical

By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / September 22, 2011

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The Framingham Board of Health is upping the pressure on the General Chemical Corp. to clean up or shut down its hazardous-waste storage facility near Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.

More than a year after officials first found toxic spills, polluted ground water, and other violations at the General Chemical property, the board on Monday opened hearings on the company’s permit to operate in Framingham. If the board revokes the permit, known as a site assignment, the company could cease operations.

A consultant hired by the town testified during Monday’s hearing that the Leland Street property was more dangerous than previously thought. While the air quality in the nearby school was safe, he said, the soil deep underground was saturated with chemicals.

“We’re talking serious plume,’’ said Andrew Smyth, a geologist hired to study ground-water pollution emanating from the General Chemical facility. “This is probably one of the most contaminated sites in the state.’’

A spokesman for General Chemical told people at the meeting that the company was committed to cleaning up the site.

General Chemical’s operating permit dates from 1994, but toxic substances have been stored at the property since the 1920s, when it was a Gulf Oil terminal. In recent years, tests have revealed chemicals leaching into ground water around the facility, alarming nearby homeowners as well as parents whose children attend the Wilson school, located about 200 yards away.

A few hours before the Board of Health hearing, the state Department of Environmental Protection and General Chemical announced they had reached an agreement calling for the company to set aside $637,000 by tomorrow to cover costs related to cleaning up the contamination.

Under the agreement, the company also needs to secure another $637,000 by the middle of next week or submit new cost estimates for the cleanup.

Late last month, state officials threatened to close the facility unless company executives set aside $1.27 million in a cleanup fund by Sept. 9. The company countered with a lawsuit, and the two parties began negotiating, with the state waiving the deadline as discussions progressed, said agency spokesman Ed Coletta.

The $1.27 million figure is a fraction of the cleanup operation’s eventual total, according to Smyth, who works for TRC Cos. in Lowell.

Toxic substances have traveled through the ground water at least 100 yards south of General Chemical’s 2-acre property, with some chemicals seeping 50 feet into the soil, he said.

“This is going to be hard to clean up,’’ Smyth said. “If anybody thinks this is going to take five years, ten years - sorry, it’s not going to happen.’’

Framingham’s ongoing review is separate from the DEP’s new agreement with the company. But town officials have been preparing and gathering information for the site assignment hearings since last year, when the DEP fined the company for its most recent violations.

The violations included workers pumping contaminated water onto the company’s grounds, and improperly storing barrels of hazardous substances.

At the Monday hearing, held at Wilson Elementary, General Chemical lawyer James Shea said the company will be responding to the concerns of town officials and residents. “General Chemical is committed to the cleanup of the site,’’ he said.

Grumbles rippled throughout the crowd of about 80 residents while Shea spoke. The issue of ground-water pollution has stirred passions in the neighborhood, a largely low-income area heavily populated by Brazilian immigrants.

While the board didn’t allow the public to ask questions, shortly before the hearing a handful of residents contacted the Framingham Action Coalition for Environmental Safety and the Boston-based nonprofit Toxics Action Center. Representatives of the advocacy groups gathered outside the school to call on the board to revoke the company’s operating permit.

“I don’t know the consequences of the chemicals,’’ said Bruno Mourao, a Leland Street resident whose son attends kindergarten in the school. “It could be bad. It’s been going on for years. It seems to me they don’t care about human beings.’’

Others said they feared the pollutants might cause cancer, asthma, and other ailments. “This place is one big toxic dump,’’ said Jim Rizoli, a Pond Street resident. “The people on the south side of Framingham have been putting up with this for 50 years.’’

Taryn Hallweaver, an organizer with the Toxics Action Center who attended the hearing, said the complaints were a common refrain among people living next to dirty facilities in Massachusetts. State and local officials often wait too long to take action on complaints, she said.

“General Chemical should not be operating in a residential neighborhood, near a school, or near an aqueduct that supplies water to the city of Boston,’’ said Hallweaver, referring to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Sudbury Aqueduct, a backup water line used most recently when the MWRA’s pipeline burst in Weston last year.

Smyth said the aqueduct passes through the chemical plume.

“The company has shown a flagrant disregard for environmental and health regulations,’’ said Hallweaver. “The longer we wait on this, the longer we are putting people and their families’ health at risk.’’

The town’s health director, Ethan Mascoop, said the board had the authority to retain, rescind, or change the company’s site assignment at any time.

Members would probably vote on the issue after three or four more hearings, he said.

The board’s next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 3.