June 14, 2010 | last updated March 23, 2012 4:23 pm

Sins Of The Past | Industry is no longer the environment's enemy. Can the fragile truce last?

Photo/Ron Bouley
Paul McNulty, Westborough public health director, says because of pollution 80 years ago, Hocomonco Pond and the land around it will never be 100 percent usable.

Hocomonco Pond is a tiny, shoe-shaped pond, ringed with lush stands of trees, nestled in the expanse between Routes 9 and 30 in Westborough.

But it's not as benign as it may look.

In the 1930s and 40s, a wood-treating and preservation plant operated in its vicinity, and disposal practices ultimately seeped creosote into groundwater, soil and sediments.

MetroWest is dotted with such sites, the tarnished relics of the region's industrial past. And though some may never be entirely clean again, they can accommodate a number of uses from recreation to redevelopment. Perhaps more important, these sites serve as lessons to businesses on the importance of environmental protection.

Cleanup at Hocomonco has been ongoing since the 1980s, but, "the land will never be 100 percent usable," explained Paul McNulty, public health director in Westborough, which owns this water body, a designated Superfund site.

If there's one positive in making a mistake, it's the lessons to be learned from it - because ultimately, mishaps are essential components of evolution and growth.

There are no clearer examples of this than environmental transgressions.

In the roughly 30 years since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began identifying Superfund sites, hazardous waste imprints on the landscape resulting from various leaks and spills, groundwater and sediment contaminations, or simply careless disposal, there's been a dramatic shift in the actions and practices surrounding waste, chemicals and toxins.

"If we don't learn how to get better from it, then we unfortunately are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past," said Paul Connor, director of environmental health and safety at a Dow Chemical Co. plant in Marlborough. "It's important to learn what went wrong, why it went wrong, how we prevent it from happening in the future."

Much of the change has come about from mandatory, evolving regulations.

But it's also continually reinforced by the many Superfund sites that remain, tinged with contamination. About a half-dozen such environmental sins of the past leave toxic trails across MetroWest. They include Hocomonco, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, also known as the Natick Labs, adjacent to Lake Cochituate, and perhaps the most notorious, the former Nyanza chemical waste dump in Ashland.

All told, the locations offer a dirty reminder that hazardous waste sites can't so easily be blotted out.

"It's a slow process," said Jim Connolly, restoration program manager for the Natick Labs.

The Army-owned property is on the eastern shore of Lake Cochituate State Park, and past practices at the site have led to contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface water with various volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxins, and a medley of heavy metals, including barium, mercury, arsenic, copper, lead and zinc, according to the site's EPA National Priorities List page.

There's good news in all this: After about 17 years of studies and work, the Natick site has been significantly cleared up. All areas of contaminated soil have been excavated, removed and disposed of off-site, said Connolly.

"We're trying to take care of the messes made in the past when people were not so conscious of proper disposal," he noted. "We want to be a good and safe and healthy neighbor."

The Long Haul
Still, safety and health are a ways off for Cochituate. Cleanup of polluted groundwater is ongoing, and another volume of contaminated sediment will be dredged, Connolly said.

The estimated finish date is sometime in the 2030s. "We're going to be going for another 20-plus years," Connolly said, noting that that's "normal for this sort of thing."

Unfortunately, he's right. Many of Massachusetts' 35 Superfunds date back to the 1980s.

However, just six were added in the 1990s, and another four, in Mansfield, Concord, Sutton and Wilmington, in the 2000s.

Another, the Sudbury Training Annex, spanning Maynard, Stow, Hudson and Sudbury, was deleted from the priority list in 2002.

So clearly, the Superfund program is working. "It has not only cleaned up waste sites, it's prevented new ones from being created," said Ken Pruitt, managing director of the Boston-based Environmental League of Massachusetts, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization.

And it's proved that rebirth is possible.

The Hocomonco site, now fenced off, may eventually provide walking trails and "passive recreation" for locals, McNulty explained. This has been discussed by Westborough selectmen, but no decisions have yet been made, he noted.

"Things have come a long way," said Liz Harriman, deputy director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, a state entity based at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "Companies have largely cleaned up their act, and they understand a lot more now about what happens to a chemical when it's dumped in the environment."

In the past, they simply didn't, or at least didn't think about it.

Clean Competition
So, as Westborough's McNulty noted, "It was just common to dump your waste products into the ground, or a pond or stream somewhere."

Pruitt agreed that "there was some pretty horrific pollution that went on."

But then came the grim and notorious Love Canal and Times Beach tragedies, areas in New York and Missouri, respectively, that were literally seething with toxic waste.

In December 1980, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, commonly referred to as Superfund). The act imposed a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries, and allowed federal response to sites afflicted by hazardous waste. Such locations are now put on a National Priorities List, and clean-up plans are established.

About a decade later, in 1989, Massachusetts enacted a Toxic Use Reduction Act requiring companies to report on their toxic chemical use, including what kinds, how much, and the ensuing byproducts. The law also requires companies to prepare a toxic chemical reduction plan.

Under an established federal inventory, roughly 1,400 chemicals are subject to reporting. About 600 companies in the state report annually, according to Harriman with TURI, which provides training, services and grant programs to help reduce toxic chemical use and promote other energy efficiencies.

As a result of all this, toxics use has gone down in the state by about 40 percent over the past 20 years, Harriman said. Waste has been reduced by 70 percent and emissions by more than 90 percent.

But, according to some companies, being safer isn't a dreaded chore or an agonizing decision.

"A good environmental performance equates to a good reputation," which equals good business, according to Dow's Connor. In Marlborough, Dow creates materials for the semiconductor, display technology, solar and photovoltaic industries.

Pruitt agreed, adding that safer practices allow U.S. businesses to compete in a global marketplace. Regulations have made them "more competitive, not less competitive, more successful, not less successful," he said. It shows that "you can have a healthy economy and a healthy environment."

Plus, less waste means less money spent and better profits, Connor acknowledged.

Which is another point Pruitt emphasized: For companies that find alternatives or reduce chemical use, there's less to buy, and less to dispose of. "It saves money on both ends," he said.

But beyond the monetary benefits, regulations have prompted businesses, government agencies, for-profit and non-profit companies to simply rethink their processes.

In Dow's case, risk management approaches around chemicals have become more stringent, Connor explained, with the company constantly "managing, looking at, evaluating, all the potential environmental health and safety risks when they've presented themselves."

Another goal is to drive greener and more sustainable chemistries into product mixes.

Regulation
Meanwhile, throughout the Army, including in Natick, there's a new directive to incorporate environmental management systems into day-to-day operations, Connolly explained.

As part of that, they're continually assessing whether their actions are the "best and most environmentally-sensitive" ways of operating, he said. The charge also promotes recycling and procurement of green materials.

These are lessons ultimately learned from the mistakes of the past, which are still being felt today. At Cochituate, it's safe to swim, boat and wade, but beware of the fish.

"If you ate enough fish (caught in the lake), it could be bad for you," Connolly said.

Meanwhile, at Hocomonco, creosote has been sucked off the bottom of the pond, carved out of the ground, and pumped out of groundwater by a well.

Much of it was disposed of in a double-lined on-site landfill, and there's another area where the material is confined under a a clay cap, McNulty explained.

There are "ever-decreasing smaller amounts of creosote coming out of the wells," he said. "At this point in time, it's no hazard to anyone."

The same kind of success is also evident at the former Nyanza site in Ashland.

An industrial complex for more than 60 years, production, disposal and discharge practices there resulted in literally tons of groundwater, soil, sediments, and surface water contaminated with heavy metals, chlorinated organic chemicals, solvents and chemical waste, according to the site's National Priorities List page.

Vapors were also detected, and the nearby wetlands and the Sudbury River were polluted with mercury.

But after more than 20 years of short-term and long-term efforts, there are "no health risks, no contaminations," said Robert Gayner, who owns the property, which now boasts several businesses, apartments, and an MBTA station. "They solved all the problems. In this particular case, they did a good job."

Yet while incredible strides have been made, much more can be done, according to industry experts and companies, a point now being emphasized by the millions of gallons of crude oil coursing through the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the high-profile offshore drilling leak.

Now and in the future, the challenge is dealing with emerging substances that aren't that well understood, Harriman said.

Also, the inevitable goal is to have companies focus on the chemicals that are in the products they use, and to also keep them from tinkering with listed chemicals to make them into something slightly different, and thus not regulated, she said.

As Pruitt noted, businesses will take the least costly path when producing a product.

So if safeguards aren't in place, "shortcuts will be taken and it will result in harm to people and to the environment," Pruitt said. Therefore, "it's not a question of whether to regulate private business, it's a question of how to do so."

To this end, several entities are lobbying for a Safer Alternatives Bill, which would require replacement of toxic chemicals with safer alternatives in Massachusetts, where feasible, Pruitt explained.

Similar national and state bills could be introduced, he said, and homeowners could play a role, too, by choosing organic care for their lawns and less toxic cleaning products.

"There are still huge amounts of toxic pollution going into the environment," Pruitt said. "We've come a long way, but we just need to keep going."

Click here to see a map of Superfund sites in MetroWest.

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