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Concerns linger over cleanup at old air base

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / October 13, 2011

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Weymouth officials say they have concerns about the environmental cleanup efforts at the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, and have asked their congressmen to step in and make sure the job gets done right.

In a letter to the Massachusetts congressional delegation, the Weymouth Town Council expressed worries about how the Navy plans to deal with parts of the old air base, including three specific sites that might have been contaminated by harmful substances such as oil and solvents. The town officials are hoping their congressmen will put pressure on the Navy and the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up any polluted areas to the highest standard possible.

The Town Council’s concerns come at a critical time for the shuttered military facility, which is being redeveloped into a new “smart growth’’ community known as SouthField. Construction of homes is underway in one section of the property, which spans 1,400 acres in Weymouth, Abington, and Rockland, and the first residents recently moved into completed homes.

“The cleanup has been going on 10 years,’’ said Arthur Mathews, president of the Town Council. “We want to make sure those three specific areas are cleaned up to an unrestricted-use level.’’

Mathews said the Town Council sent the letter to make sure representatives in Congress were aware of those pending environmental issues before the Navy transfers the rest of the land to the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., the local redevelopment authority overseeing the SouthField project. A purchase-and-sale agreement is expected to be signed as early as Nov. 15.

The land transfer will be a significant milestone for the SouthField project, which would transform the swath of federally owned property originally built as a base for military blimps in World War II. It was one of many defense facilities slated for closure under the government’s 1995 Base Realignment and Closure program, and was closed in 1997.

In 1998, the towns surrounding the base approved a reuse plan to redevelop the property. LNR Property Corp., a private real estate firm based in Miami Beach, Fla., is serving as master developer of the project. Plans for SouthField include thousands of homes, retail shops, 1.7 million square feet of commercial space, a sports and recreation complex, a movie studio, and an 18-hole public golf course. According to the plan, more than 1,000 acres will be left as open space.

Because portions of the property were polluted by jet fuel, among other substances, the base is still a designated Superfund site, according to the EPA. The Navy has been in charge of the environmental remediation efforts, and the cleanup is ongoing. (The Department of Defense is funding the cleanup, and the EPA is the lead regulatory agency.)

Weymouth Town Councilor Brian McDonald said he wants the congressmen to put pressure on the Navy and EPA to clean up the contaminated areas to the point of “unrestricted use’’ - meaning the land is once again pristine enough to be used for any purpose - as soon as possible.

“My concern is that the original agreement said they would be cleaning up to a standard of unrestricted use,’’ McDonald said. “They’re changing the game as they go along. . . . They intend not to live up to their end of the deal’’ by cleaning up parts of the base to a lesser standard, on their own timetable.

The town council is particularly concerned about Building 81, formerly the site of a Marine Air Reserve training building and vehicle maintenance garage (a 500-gallon underground oil storage tank was removed from that location in 1991); Building 82, which was an old hangar; and a solvent release area located in the northeast part of the base. According to the EPA, additional field studies are underway at those locations, with a remedy for each to be decided by next year.

“The council is alarmed by statements by the Environmental Protection Agency . . . that the Navy might be allowed to leave in place soil and groundwater contamination at certain locations’’ on the base, including Building 81, Building 82, and the part of the base known as the ‘solvent release area,’ ’’ the council said in its Sept. 19 letter. “It is disconcerting that this facility was closed . . . more than 16 years ago, and the need for significant environmental remediation remains.’’

Kevin R. Donovan, chief executive of the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., said he is optimistic that all the details of the environmental remediation will be worked out by Nov. 15 so SouthField can move forward.

“We’re insisting that it has to be cleaned up according to the reuse plan,’’ said Donovan. “I’m confident we’ll work everything out by that time.’’

US Representative William R. Keating said he’s frustrated by the length of time it has taken to clean up the base and get the project off the ground.

“You have the opportunity for 10,000 jobs to be created. It’s all smart growth. We just got $8 million for the rail rehabilitation project. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has $45 million invested in this,’’ he said. “The government has been sitting with an empty parcel here for nine-plus years. . . . There’s no excuse for delays in moving forward.’’