When the General Chemical Corp. announced last month that it would shut down, Framingham officials who had been reviewing the hazardous waste facility's local permission to operate were elated. Now, they want to make sure the company doesn't walk away too quickly and leave a mess behind.
The Framingham Board of Health is considering imposing a raft of new requirements on General Chemical as the company prepares to shutter its site permanently, a process that involves months of extensive cleaning of buildings and equipment that have handled toxic chemicals for decades.
The new requirements could include digging up the Leland Street facility's foundations to look for heavy metals and other toxins in the soil underneath the site, testing trees around the facility to see if they've absorbed contaminated water, and making a website where the public could learn more about the cleanup, said officials at a board hearing Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, which abuts the facility.
"How do you make it clean and acceptable so no one's affected?" asked Framingham Public Health Director Ethan Mascoop at the hearing. "You maintain systems to make sure the site is working the way it is supposed to work post-closure."
The company's general manager, Steve Ganley, declined to comment.
Health Board Chairman Mike Hugo said he and his colleagues will make a decision on the new requirements at another hearing scheduled to take place at the Woodrow Wilson School at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 30. At that meeting, he expects the board to vote to issue a new permit, called a site assignment, that regulates how the company operates. The company is now governed by a site assignment granted by the board in 1994.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is already reviewing General Chemical's plan to close the facility, said Hugo, a situation that could lead to the DEP and health board both placing new demands on the company before a final cleanup plan is approved.
Hugo hopes DEP officials will adopt many of the new requirements the health board is considering. If they don't, he said, the board will fight to make sure the town imposes them in a new site assignment that governs the cleanup process. "It's a jurisdictional issue that is currently being defined," said Hugo. "If there's anything that affects health, we have great power to act."
Residents who have been attending the health board's hearings for months said they were happy that Framingham officials were willing to put more pressure on General Chemical to be a good neighbor. For years, they said, the DEP didn't adequately address pollution at the site, they said.
"The Board of Health is doing something to get the state to do more," said Sydney Faust, who lives in a nearby condominium complex that could be in the path of a toxic plume that has been emanating from the site since the 1960s, before General Chemical owned the property.
In an e-mail, DEP spokesman Joseph Ferson said the agency would cooperate with the town but he would not comment on the scope of the health board's authority. "We'll continue to work hand-in-hand with the Board of Health to make sure GCC's facility is closed safely," Ferson wrote.
Even though General Chemical technically is slated not to operate in the coming months, its former property will still be owned by the same New Jersey-based parent company. Also, across Leland Street, another General Chemical affiliate that hauls hazardous materials, Clean Venture, is expected to continue operating.
The health board has been holding hearings on General Chemical since last year, after a string of environmental violations were discovered at the company, including workers pouring contaminated water onto the facility's grounds in 2010.
The company is still dealing with violations from that period. Last month, the DEP fined General Chemical $24,575 for a range of violations that occurred at the site in the last two years, including spilling hazardous waste, mislabeling containers, and not following a contingency plan in August when a small fire broke out at the facility.
A geologist and consultant hired by the town, Drew Smyth, said General Chemical's current plan for cleaning up the site is woefully inadequate. The company estimates that the cleanup will cost $1.27 million. But Smyth said that forecast is unrealistic and does not anticipate any surprises during the closure.
"These numbers reflect that everything will be hunky dory, that everything will be clean," he said.
But there are plenty of details that could complicate the cleanup, said Smyth. General Chemical, for example, needs to patch the numerous cracks that crisscross the concrete and asphalt floors of the facility. Otherwise, he said, the water used to clean off the tanks and other equipment encrusted with years' worth of chemicals could simply flow through the cracks and into the soil. "They need to fill the cracks before they work," he said.
Most importantly, General Chemical appears to be planning to clean, but not remove, the massive storage tanks at the facility, said Smyth.
Without removing the tanks, nobody will know if they were ever leaking, he said. For years, the tanks sat on bare ground. In the last decade or two, the company paved the area. Plumes of toxins could be sitting under the pavement, he said. The same principal applies to buildings on the site
"It's a lot easier if that equipment - the tanks and buildings - are gone," Smyth said. "When you remove the tanks and buildings, you'll find the spills beneath them."