First in a two-part series

By M.E. Jones

Correspondent

AYER -- A local environmental watchdog group, People of Ayer Concerned about the Environment, is worried that the Army plans to shut down its arsenic remediation treatment facility at Shepley's Hill landfill in Devens much too soon.

In a recent email announcing an "important public meeting" to address the issue, PACE member Laurie Nehring sounded the alarm about the pending closure and the group's objection to it. "We believe we are far from an acceptable cleanup level," she said.

Nehring said arsenic contamination the treatment plant was built to remediate impacts "private citizens" in Ayer now and might taint Devens drinking water in the future.

Although arsenic occurs naturally in rocks, it is poisonous and at certain levels poses serious health risks, including cancer.

In this instance, PACE posits that the arsenic at the Shepley's Hill landfill was caused by human activity at the 84-acre dump site, which closed in 1992 with an estimated volume of 1,300,000 cubic yards of waste material buried there, much of it from Army operations at the former Fort Devens.

The Army might not have been the only toxic contributor, since there was once a tannery nearby and a railroad repair facility, both of which are notorious toxic-waste producers.

But neither of those entities is in business now. Nor is Fort Devens. But it was around a lot longer and the acreage the former military base occupied for over three-quarters of a century has been officially designed by the federal government as a Superfund site.

Since the based closed, the Army has done a lot to clean it up, including the remediation process now under way. It's working, Nehring said, but the job isn't done yet.

Citizens voices count

Noting that the entire former military base was designated a Superfund site, she said public input definitely made a difference when the Army launched cleanup efforts in the past, targeting areas of concern in Devens such as the former air field and the landfill at Shepley's Hill. Citizens voices are listened to, she said.

Part of the problem now is that although test wells confirmed high levels of arsenic in the soil and water around the landfill, the Army has never accepted the premise that the landfill caused it, she said, since arsenic also occurs naturally in rock.

But PACE believes the landfill contributed more arsenic than rocks did, and that the Army is responsible for cleaning it up. Both federal and state agencies -- DEP and EPA -- share their concerns over an early pullout, Nehring said.

The Army may say it's time to go, but DEP and EPA "strongly disagree," she said.

Located in wetlands, unlined and in use for more than half a century before its closure, the Shepley's Hill landfill served as a dumping ground for military castoffs since 1917 and was also used as a municipal dump site during its active lifespan.

Now there are strict environmental regulations, but there were none in 1917, when the Army landfill was sited. It was common practice at the time to put landfills in wetlands areas and waste, some of it toxic by today's standards, was buried deep, with no liner below.

As a result, arsenic is a common occurrence in old landfills like this one, according to longtime PACE consultant Richard E. Doherty of Engineering & Consulting Resources Inc.

The Army, apparently believing its work is done at Shepley's Hill, is ready to sign off, he said, but it may be too soon to make that call.

PACE argues the treatment plant is effective and should keep operating. To that end, the group wants to raise awareness and hopefully get local clout to back their stand.

Which is what the recent meeting was all about. Held Wednesday night, Oct. 10, at the Parker Charter School in Devens, it was sparsely attended.

The low turnout was disappointing, but Nehring posited that PACE could have done a better job getting the word out. 

Mission and message

Since its formation in 1993, PACE has been dedicated to "(ensuring) that men, women and children who reside in Ayer and neighboring communities are not exposed to unnecessary environmental risks to their health and well-being, now and during future generations."

The volunteer, nonprofit organization aims to fulfill that tall order via "education and community outreach," according to its mission statement, and to "communicate these issues and concerns to residents, government officials and regulators."

Despite a sense that he was preaching to the choir, more or less, Doherty gave an informative and relatively comprehensive presentation, including some site history, a brief but understandable explanation of the problem and an overview of work that's been done so far.

"The problem goes back a long way," he said.

Shepley's Hill landfill became a hot-button issue in Ayer thanks to PACE. But public interest has apparently waned and with it the Army's commitment to the treatment plant.

Local involvement has lessened, too, from host towns' participation in the Joint Boards of Selectmen to public attendance at Devens Enterprise Commission meetings.

JBOS was once an active advisory board to MassDevelopment, the state agency charged with redevelopment and governance of Devens until disposition is decided. DEC is Devens' sole permitting authority.

Interest in the Restoration Advisory Board has also died down.

The RAB was established as part of the closure process when Fort Devens was de-commissioned in 1996. Monthly meetings have since become quarterly and participation is tepid compared to the early days, when there were active members from the host towns, including Ayer and Harvard and local groups such as the Nashua River Watershed Association were represented.

Devens Committee member Tom Kinch said he was surprised and also concerned that the Devens community wasn't more informed on the Shepley's Hill landfill issue, which is equally important to Devens residents and those in surrounding towns.

Kinch suggested tweaking the PACE acronym to encompass the area rather than a single town. He also suggested the landfill issue might be an agenda item at a future meeting of JBOS, which he chairs, perhaps with a presentation like the one Doherty gave that night.

Doherty's PowerPoint presentation included sketches showing an "arsenic plume" spreading toward Ayer's West Main Street and beyond, stopping at Nonacoicus Brook. Not that it necessarily stops there, that's just as far as data collection takes it.

Selectman Frank Maxant characterized that gap in public perception as the kind of miscue people should be skeptical of. "As laymen, we don't know what the technical stuff is, but we don't have to accept 'nonsense,' even from experts," he said. "Have confidence in your common sense."

The presentation also included maps of the landfill site, with Plow Share and Grove ponds nearby and within walking distance of the Parker Charter School.

Nobody drinks the water from those ponds or the rust-colored Red Cove (Doherty said that iron leached from the landfill could have caused the unnatural color) and there are no plans to recycle the capped landfill site for public use, but Shepley's Hill and the pond areas are accessible. Parker students often go there to collect samples for science experiments, Nehring said.