How 3 women helped drive a scrap metal business out of Somerset

LAND COURT JUDGE Robert Foster ordered the scrap metal export business at Brayton Point in Somerset to shut down largely because of what he heard and saw on a visit to the homes of three women – Nicole McDonald, Kathy Souza, and Nancy Thomas.

In his decision, Foster described his visit to the neighborhood across from Brayton Point known as “The View.” The case focused largely on legal and scientific arguments about the merits of town bylaws and the size of a particle of dust, but in the end what proved decisive for Foster was his tour of the scrap metal business and his personal inspection of the three homes. He became convinced dust was leaving the scrap metal operation and causing harm to the women and their neighbors.

On The Codcast, McDonald said dust is everywhere in her neighborhood. “It covers our homes. It covers our windows. You can taste it when you walk, depending on which way the wind is blowing. It irritates your eyes, the back of your throat. And we know that it’s metal dust. It’s hazardous, caustic metal dust,” she said. “It has really been a nightmare experience for the residents.”

Souza said no one paid attention to them initially. “It started off as, ‘well, they’re just complaining.’ Then it progressed to ‘wait a minute, there might be some environmental concerns here,’ to ‘this is really affecting everybody’s health and well-being,’” she said.

Thomas said she has been living with the dust for nearly three years, but she takes some positives from the experience. “That is the mobilization of this small residential neighborhood to fight big business to do what’s right,” she said. “For someone who has lived in this neighborhood over 50 years, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve accomplished. Not just Nicole, Kathy, and I, but all of the residents in Brayton Point, in Lees River, in Swansea, on the Fall River waterfront. It’s just been inspiring to see the support we’ve gotten from the other residents. And moving forward, I think we’ll all still be in this together.”

Thomas said town residents met early on with the St. Louis company that owns Brayton Point and the scrap metal company leasing part of the property. “They looked us in the eye and they told us they didn’t think the scrap metal was going anywhere. And that left us no choice but to fight back through the system we had in place through our boards and eventually the Land Court,” Thomas said. “They were never very cooperative. They provided us with these phone numbers that they said were call centers and you can always contact us with your concerns. But I promise you we called, we had dozens of people call. There’s never been a return call. There’s never an answer. It’s kind of a dummy number to placate us but we’ve never gotten any results.

The women formed a group called Save Our Bay – Brayton Point, which grew to more than 3,000 members and became a political force in Somerset. Souza said members tracked what was going on in town government and then, dissatisfied with what they saw, got involved themselves.

“I’m thrilled that I’m a selectman,” said Souza. “It’s something that, before I started, I never saw myself doing in a million years. I actually enjoy it. I enjoy meeting with the residents. Nancy’s part of two boards. She’s on the historical society and cultural council and Nicole is a Planning Board member.”

Souza objected when asked if she ran for office to have town government do what she wanted it to do. “It’s not what we want it to do, it’s what’s the right thing to do. Residents should be listened to,” she said. “There was a different set of rules depending on which business it was. To watch that happen, you have no choice but to step in and help straighten it out. There’s an age-old saying – if you want to see change, be the change. That’s what we are, the change that we want to see.”

Souza said it bothers her when people ask how the scrap metal business can be any worse than the coal-fired power plant that was previously located at Brayton Point. She said coal dust and metal dust are both poisons. “They’re all harmful to our health. I know my father died of a rare cancer. He worked at the power plant. I know Nancy’s father worked at the power plant and he also died of a rare cancer,” she said. “We are going to be the people that stop this from ever happening in our neighborhood again. And if it takes me until the day I go, I will, I’ll keep at it. There is no good poison. There is no good harmful contaminant to land in our neighborhood. We don’t deserve it. Nobody deserves it.”

BRUCE MOHL

 

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