AYER -- Capped for 20 years, the Army is continuing its work to remove arsenic in and around the area of the former Fort Devens Shepley's Hill Landfill. The 84 acre landfill dates to the 1920s and was open for several decades but was capped in 1993.
The landfill is in the northeast corner of the former Fort Devens Superfund site, which directly abuts private land in Ayer off West Main and Shirley streets and the Plow Shop and Grove Ponds.
High levels of arsenic, in some places found to be 400 times the acceptable level for drinking water, were detected after the base closure. Testing has confirmed high levels of arsenic in the groundwater north of the landfill in an area where 65-70 Ayer homes are located.
On Wednesday night, the Ayer Board of Health held a public hearing to gather public comment and feedback on the Army's next steps. The public was invited to submit written comments to the Army by 5 p.m. on April 5 as the Army prepares its planned next steps for filing with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which has jurisdiction over the clean up.
The Army's Oct. 2012 draft report, called an "Explanation of Significant Differences" (ESD) is on the town's website, www.ayer.ma.us.
The draft report is also in hard copy for review at the Ayer library and DPW offices, as well as the Town Hall offices of the Town Clerk, selectmen, and Board of Health.
Terrie Boguski, the town's EPA grant-funded technical assistant, said there's no perceived threat to public health and stressed that the town-supplied drinking water is safe. However Boguski said the town is "looking towards the future" to ensure that no one uses private wells for drinking water or to irrigate crops.
The semimetal element is odorless and tasteless. Arsenic is naturally occurring but also used in industry to make metal and glass products, electronics and to preserve wood.
Arsenic doesn't degrade into another substance, said Boguski.
"There's no treatment that's going to turn it into something else. It will always be arsenic."
Arsenic is not on the land's surface but has been confirmed in high concentrations in groundwater around the landfill and in nearby Plow Shop Pond. Long-term concerns are also that Plow Shop Pond is linked to Grove Pond, one of Ayer's two drinking water aquifer protections zones (the other being on Spectacle Pond on the Ayer/Littleton line).
Exposure to arsenic can trigger a litany of illnesses, including gastrointestinal injury, paralysis, blindness, and cancers of the bladder, lung, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostate.
The affected Ayer homes are all believed to be serviced by municipal water service and not by private wells drawing water from the contaminated area.
Part of the Army's plan includes a fresh outreach effort to identify any private wells, abandoned or active, in the area of concern to ensure the wells are capped and closed (at the Army's expense and with the permission of private landowners).
The Army also is also asking that the Board of Health put additional well-water controls in place, including a moratorium on future private wells in the area.
That language is in development and remains under board review.
The source of the arsenic has long been debated. The Army has maintained that arsenic is naturally occurring in the area due to granite.
Selectman Frank Maxant wanted assurances that the town wouldn't "shoulder" any of the cost of the Army clean up. "If so, I'd be completely against it."
"There's no burden on the town," said Robert Simeone, the Army Base Realignment and Closure Environmental coordinator for Fort Devens.
In addition to providing updates to the Board of Health, the Army will continue to implement controls in the years to come.
"The only thing we cannot do is enforce the Board of Health regulations regarding the moratorium on installing new wells. We'll be working with the town to ensure that those moratoriums are being enforced by the town."
The expense of capping wells will be borne by the Army, but property owners will not be compensated on any lost value to their properties.
"The Army has no authority to evaluate any loss of property value under the clean-up."
PACE co-founder Laurie Nehring said she has been involved in monitoring the situation since her daughter was a baby.
Her daughter turned 16 on Tuesday. She hoped that the process going forward is a "closed loop" in that the Board of Health is a group of volunteers who'll be watching the matter going forward.
Calvin Moore asked about other heavy metals found in and around Plow Shop Pond, of which he's a half-owner. Ginny Lombardo of the EPA New England Division said that wasn't the purpose of the meeting and that work is still afoot to locate those responsible for that matter including the current day owner of lands that once served as a tannery aside Grove Pond.
Lombardo said the Army is going to be responsible for routine reporting on the situation "in perpetuity" since its a Superfund site where "waste is left in place" in the form of the landfill materials "so the Army is on the hook even when this remedy is completed."
When asked about the effectiveness of the groundwater treatment and pumping aside the landfill, Simeone said such efforts will take about 100 years to clean the groundwater of arsenic. The Army had sought to stop the treatment plant operations, citing costs of $1 million a year. That request was denied by the DEP and EPA.
Simeone confirmed the pump was "off line" for a week earlier this month "due to a funding limitation" when the contract for the work ran out. It's back in operation now, he said, with no plans to stop treating the groundwater.
Written comments are to be filed with Robert Simeone, Army BRAC Environmental Coordinator, 30 Quebec St, Unit 100, Devens, MA 01434-4479 by April 5 at 5 p.m. Comments may also be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.