Risky business

When it comes to cleaning up a mess at the former Medfield State Hospital, can the state police itself?

Correction: The story says a second budget amendment proposed by Sen. James Timilty would require the Division of Capital Asset Management to clean up the former hospital site so it could be used without any restrictions. The amendment, which was subsequently signed into law, actually requires DCAM to review its cleanup plan and then report to the Legislature whether that plan is based on a “standard of unrestricted use for the site.”

“You either clean it up correctly or you don’t clean it up correctly,”
says John Harney of Medfield.

Decades before cities and towns learned to deal with waste in eco-friendly ways, workers at Medfield State Hospital threw refuse into a dump on the banks of the Charles River. Noxious medical waste, mixed in with a gumbo of bricks, glass, asphalt, concrete, and other debris, never left the hospital grounds. Most of it went into the ground, right along with metals and other toxic chemicals. When the hospital closed in 2003 after more than a century, the on-site landfill was up to 15-feet deep in places.

The Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management, the agency that owns the abandoned property today, acknowledges the state has the sole responsibility for cleaning up the land and protecting the health of Med­field residents. DCAM’s cleanup plan for the former hospital site involves removing some of the 75,000 tons of waste, trucking it off-site to dispose of it at a special facility, and covering the rest with a synthetic liner and soil barrier. Officials say the remedy eliminates risks to people and the environment and is appropriate for the location and the type of contamination involved. But of the four possible options the state examined, it’s also the least expensive.

The residents of this well-to-do town 17 miles southwest of Boston say the state shouldn’t be pinching pennies when it comes to cleaning up pollution, particularly in their community. “You either clean it up correctly or you don’t clean it up correctly,” says John Harney, a Medfield resident who has been heavily involved in the hospital cleanup debate. “I don’t see that there’s a third way.”

US Rep. Stephen Lynch, whose current district includes the town, says that there are intangibles that are more important than dollar signs in the Medfield State Hospital cleanup. “It’s our obligation to leave the site in the condition that we found it before the state began their operation there,” he says. “I know that DCAM is pushing the capping option as a way to save money.”

Many of the residents wonder whether the state, when it comes to cleaning up its own mess, can police itself. State Sen. James Timilty, a Walpole Democrat who represents Medfield, said as much in a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick, arguing that the state wouldn’t approve a cleanup plan proposed by a private company if it didn’t address 100 percent of the waste at the site.

“It’s a classic case of how clean ‘clean’ should be,” says Greg McGregor, a Boston environmental attorney.

Medfield and DCAM are so far apart on how the cleanup should be done that the town requested that a mediator be brought in to help the parties sort out the issues and see if common ground can be found. Surprisingly, DCAM agreed, and at press time the two sides were talking but remained far apart. All the town and state officials who commented for this story made their remarks before the mediation process was scheduled to begin in mid-June.

Dumping on Medfield

The abandoned Medfield state hospital has the vibe of a quaint, if creepy, New England college campus on a long break. The majestic 19th century red brick buildings, many of them with rotting porches and boarded up windows, earned the site a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

When the hospital opened in 1896, mental health professionals thought a farm-like setting would be therapeutic for mentally ill patients. Patients grew crops and raised livestock, and the hospital officials ran the facility like a town within a town. The hospital had its own power plant, its own water and sewer systems, and, for nearly a century, its own dump.

Modern waste management practices slowly replaced the toss-it-out-back mentality of yesteryear and the hospital began sending waste off-site for disposal in the early 1990s. The main toxins that remain in the dump area are metals, such as lead and mercury, and incineration by­products, such as dioxins and partially burnt coal and oil. There is asbestos in the ground, too, which is not a hazard until it is exposed to air.

The old dump site covers about three acres and is located just west of the northernmost section of the hospital campus, near a bend in the snaking Charles River. There are several other polluted areas on the 269-acre hospital property, including petroleum-laced sediment in the Charles River. But most of the polluted areas other than the dump have either already been cleaned up or the town and the state are working on what needs to be done. DCAM has spent about $3 million so far cleaning up polluted areas at the hospital site.

The dump site itself has become contentious because it borders the Charles River, an aquifer runs underneath the landfill, and one of the town’s six water wells is about 3,000 feet away. The abandoned dump is also close to the old hospital campus, which the town of Medfield has shown interest in purchasing and possibly redeveloping.

Federal environmental officials reviewed the status of some open sewers on the hospital property in the mid-1990s and concluded they weren’t dangerous enough to warrant adding the area to the Superfund program reserved for the most hazardous waste sites in the country. That left environmental jurisdiction to other federal, state, and local programs. DCAM has been categorizing all the pollution on the property and developing remediation plans. DCAM has held more than 30 meetings with town residents about its cleanup plans over the last three years.

The Medfield site falls in a category that is one step below the classification for the state’s most hazardous waste sites. As a result, oversight of the cleanup process has fallen to DCAM and not the state Department of Environ­mental Protection. The actual remediation will be carried out by independent professionals who will do the work and then certify that it meets state standards. State environmental officials audit some remediation sites for compliance once the cleanup is completed.

The Medfield State Hospital cleanup is the latest of the state’s efforts to rehabilitate abandoned state hospitals. Over the past several decades, DCAM has spent about $57 million on remediation of contamination at six other closed sites. MassDevelopment, a quasi-public state authority, spent another $6 million removing asbestos at Northampton State Hospital as part of a development project there. Some of these sites are near wetlands and streams, but none spawned the type of controversy that has occurred in Medfield or triggered a public review process.

The most expensive cleanup was at the former Boston State Hospital site, where about $29 million was spent removing asbestos, petroleum, and various metals. Nearly all of the contaminants at the Boston site were removed to make way for housing developments and a Massachu­setts Audubon nature center.

Cleanup crew

The state’s first proposal for dealing with the Medfield hospital dump site in 2009 called for removing just a small fraction of the waste. Town residents panned that plan so DCAM went back to the drawing board, developing a menu of four options.

One option was a roughly $17 million plan to remove and dispose of nearly all the waste at the site. A second proposal costing $7.4 million called for removing about half the waste, capping the remaining contamination with a liner and soil, and shoring up the riverbank and restoring wetlands with new plants, trees, and shrubs. A third idea involved extracting the waste only from an area of the dump near the town well.

The fourth plan, and the one favored by DCAM, would cost nearly $4 million, remove roughly 15 percent of the contamination at the dump, and install a liner-and-soil cover system and plantings. The DCAM plan would also require periodic monitoring of the site for 30 years and replacement of the cover system every five years. To protect the liner-and-soil cover, residential and agricultural uses would most likely be prohibited at the site, though the restrictions have not been finalized. Once all the cleanup work is complete, the area would be turned over to the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which would own the land in perpetuity.

Medfield resident William Massaro says the safest course is cleaning up
as much of the site as possible.

Under Massachusetts hazardous waste regulations, a contaminated site doesn’t have to be cleaned up to a pristine state to be safe. “I have always said that I define the state’s responsibility as ensuring that the site poses no health or safety risks to the community,” says Carole Cornelison, the DCAM commissioner.

State officials say their cleanup plans for the dump and the riverbed carry “no significant risk” to human health or the environment. Under the state’s rules for evaluating and cleaning up hazardous waste sites, a clean-up plan that meets the “no significant risk” standard “means that long-term exposure to chemicals from the site is not hazardous to health.… A finding of no significant risk means a site is clean enough, and no further action is required to protect human health.”

DCAM began testing samples from the landfill and the river to gauge the extent of contamination in 2005. Some 600 samples have been taken and tested and, aside from some seasonal differences in the results that fell within normal limits, nothing was amiss. DCAM officials say they have “gone over and above” previous ecological and health investigations. (Medfield officials have not been satisfied with the state’s tests and have asked for permission to do additional testing; the agency agreed to that request as long as state officials were present.)

Sandra Duran, who directs DCAM’s building maintenance and operations, says the Medfield town well near the hospital dump site is uphill from the contamination, which makes it physically impossible for the contamination to seep into the well due to the geology of the site. Duran says for 12 years, the town has independently tested its own water supply. “Never once has any contamination showed up in that data,” she says. To make sure that remains the case, state officials plan to install a monitoring system that will keep tabs on any changes in the area.

However, DCAM noted in one of its earlier draft plans that there is an “unacceptable risk to human health if groundwater in the [land]fill is used as a source of drinking water in the future” due to chemicals from another area of the hospital campus that are being addressed as part of a separate cleanup plan. The reference to groundwater concerns was dropped once state officials decided to limit future uses at the site.

“It won’t be an area that will be available to the town for any drilling for well water,” says Cornelison.

All about the money?

Three years ago, DCAM officials told Medfield residents that the hospital cleanup would not be about money, but most of the town is now convinced it is about money. DCAM Deputy Director John O’Donnell told town residents that “human health and the environment” were the top priorities in the cleanup of Medfield State Hospital. “This is not a case of we’re going to do what we can do for the cheapest amount of money, just because that’s all the money we’re going to spend,” O’Donnell said, according to a transcript of the meeting.

But after DCAM began pushing for the cheapest clean­up alternative, town residents felt they had been misled. “It appears that cost is the only factor in terms of a more significant cleanup that’s better for the environment and better for the state ultimately,” says John Thompson, chairman of the town’s state hospital environmental review committee, whose day job includes managing hazardous waste cleanups. DCAM officials said the cleanup wouldn’t be about the money, but the town is convinced it is about the money.Medfield residents have responded by mobilizing their neighbors, turning out at meetings, and raising questions about the state’s environmental assessments and the motivation for them. Many residents remain convinced that the state is taking a short-term view of the cleanup, while they focus on the long-term and the potential for the site.

Some towns rely on unpaid residents who lack experience in the area they are overseeing, but environmental cleanup experts from within the community volunteered to make Medfield’s case, and officials also hired additional outside consultants. The town’s congressman and state senator rallied to the cause. Medfield’s fight with the state has garnered coverage in the local press and landed on the front page of The Boston Globe.

Margaret Stolfa, a former Department of Environ­­mental Protection general counsel who began working on hospital environmental issues for the town earlier this spring, says she is mystified by the state’s reluctance to take a comprehensive approach to cleaning up the dump site.

“Where a private party might want more finality now and be done with a cleanup, it appears that DCAM is not worried about future risk for some reason,” she says. “The Commonwealth is the only known liable party and they should be concerned about it.”

If the landfill were further inland, the state’s proposal probably wouldn’t attract much more than a ripple of opposition. But fears about future groundwater contamination are driving the town’s insistence on the most thorough cleanup possible. Town officials worry about their nearby well, the aquifer underneath the old dump site, and the potential for fallout from future Charles River flooding. In essence, the town answers all the “what if questions” with a push for full cleanup.

William Massaro, a Medfield resident handling hospital remediation issues for the town, says the safest possible course is cleaning up the site as much as possible. “Who is going to take responsibility 10 or 30 years from now when you find a new contaminant or the EPA changes how many parts per something or another you can have in the water?” he says.

Deirdre Menoyo, who served for six years as an assistant commissioner of DEP’s Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup, questions why the state wants to give up on a future water source when fresh water scarcity in Massachusetts is a real problem. “A potentially productive aquifer in this day and age should not be written off,” she says.

Menoyo, referring to her own experience in state government, also has little faith in the agency to follow through on liner replacement plans and does not believe the town should rely on the vagaries of future funding and the shifting concerns of governors and lawmakers. “I’ve had things cut that should have been funded and commitments not followed through on,” she says.

Flooding is another flashpoint for Medfield. There are concerns that flood water could dislodge the liner that DCAM wants to use to cover the dump area and expose the waste, especially if flooding persists for an extended period of time. State officials say the soil-and-liner cover system could withstand storm water runoff and flooding, but town officials are not convinced.

The Charles River is prone to flooding in the Medfield area, and the hospital site is in a 100-year flood plain, an area that has a 1 percent chance of being hit with severe flooding in any given year. Town officials believe the dump site, particularly if it’s covered with a liner, will accentuate flooding because water will have a harder time seeping into the ground. The US Army Corps of Engineers says it plans to study this issue as part of its oversight of tracts of land bordering the Charles River that provide flood protection.

The Medfield hospital campus has been flooded in the past. In 1938, the year of the most severe hurricane ever to hit New England, the state hospital’s annual report noted that two severe rainstorms put large sections of the campus under water. Medfield also regularly experiences severe flooding, with notable deluges in 1955, 1979, and 2006.

“This [plan] might be an appropriate remedy if this site were not located next to the river,” says Margaret Van Deusen, the Charles River Watershed Association’s deputy director. “But it is.”

Lynch, the town’s congressman, worries that there will always be a concern about the contamination leeching into the water table or even the river if a complete remediation doesn’t happen. He is convinced that DCAM can do better. “They are pushing to do the minimal amount in compliance with the regs, I’ll admit,” Lynch says. “But we have higher expectations, especially given the sensitivity of this site.”

Timilty has applied legislative pressure to DCAM. He tried unsuccessfully to drum up an additional $5 million for the Medfield cleanup through an amendment to the Senate version of the 2013 state budget. A second amendment that was approved in the Senate budget would require DCAM to clean up the hospital site so that it can be used without any restrictions and report on those and other findings to the Legislature. The final state budget was pending at press time.
The biggest wildcard in the struggle over the cleanup of the hospital site is the mediation process now taking place. Agreeing to mediation was an unusual move for DCAM because state regulations do not require the agency to sit down with the town. Agency officials are tight-lipped about what they expect the mediation to accomplish and how long they will keep at it.

Should the mediation teams find common ground, any agreement must go before the board of selectmen at a minimum. And the Legislature could be looking over the agency’s shoulder through Timilty’s proposed reporting requirement, another uncommon development in this environmental remediation project.

Town officials have given no indication that they will accept anything less than the cleanest possible cleanup. McGregor, the environmental attorney, says the mediation could work if both sides show a willingness to compromise. “When reuse is involved, you have to have a level of clean-up that reaches consensus,” he says.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

But consensus won’t be easy, as attitudes have hardened among town residents. When state officials came to town hall in April to explain their cleanup plan, they were greeted by a small group of protestors outside and a hostile audience inside. A visibly upset Jessica Benson seemed to sum up the town’s position by telling the audience about a conversation she had about the state’s proposal with her young daughter. After explaining that the state intends to leave most of the hazardous waste and cover up the remainder with a liner and dirt, Benson said her daughter looked at her and replied: “So it would be like us only cleaning the kitty litter
halfway and then telling the cat not to go in the area that’s full of poop?”

Benson thought her daughter hit the nail on the head. “An eight-year-old gets this,” she said.