DEVENS -- Remediation of the old Shepley's Hill Landfill "superfund" site in Devens, where test wells detected high levels of arsenic, has been ongoing for some time and at no small cost, according to the United States Army, which is doing the work, with most goals reportedly met or in progress and a wrap-up plan in the works.

But entities involved in the project and/or its outcome- including the U.S. Army, The Federal Environmental Protection Agency the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the Town of Ayer - are not on the same page in terms of punch list items, the Army's pull-out plans or even the to-do list.

Basically, the groups are at odds about the scope of arsenic clean up and whether it's feasible to restore contaminated ground water to drinking water quality, a notion the Army apparently considers impractical and unnecessary.

The Army's case is stated in a letter from an official at the Base Realignment and Closure Division sent in August to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and copied to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in response to EPA's technical and regulatory assessment of the Army's recent remedial update.

"We believe it is inappropriate to suggest that impacted groundwater at SHL is cause for grave or 'heightened' concern, given the fact that the Army has long established that no drinking water exposure pathway exists at the site," the letter reads in part.


Advertisement

Nor does the Army accept the notion that the "area of impacted groundwater" down-grade from the landfill site on West Main Street in Ayer poses a problem, since nobody drinks it.

That stand hasn't changed, Robert J. Simeone, the Army's civilian BRAC representative said at last week's RAB meeting. "You need to be realistic ... the contamination is there and it's not going away," he said. "Frankly, I think it's much ado about nothing."

DEP Environmental Analyst David Chaffin said his agency doesn't agree. The conversation will continue, he said.

While the Army's focus has been and continues to be containment and on-site clean-up, with can-do goals and an end in sight, EPA and DEP want to see a more comprehensive plan that is proactive as well as reactive and perhaps more open-ended.

EPA Remedial Project Manager Ginny Lombardo said long-range goals could include eventually restoring contaminated groundwater to drinking water standards, for example.

In addition to EPA and DEP, both of which stand on the opposite site of the opinion split, a grass-roots, citizen watchdog group called PACE - People of Ayer Concerned About the Environment - also wants the Army to do more and stick around longer.

In addition to its previously stated view that the arsenic treatment plant at SHL should remain in operation, although the Army wants to set a date for closing it, PACE member Laurie Nehring said the group favors more outreach and public participation in the remediation process, including a public hearing and an extended public response period.

Simeone agreed to an extended public response time frame, moving from the previous date of Dec. 15 to February 15. "If you want more time, that's fine," he said.

Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand, representing the selectmen, said the town would set up and publicize the hearing.

He also said Ayer could use some help from the Army, financially, to devise and implement added regulatory measures needed to ensure nobody drinks arsenic-tainted water, now or ever.

Health Board member Mary Spinner backed him up. She stressed that her board and the Building Dept. are part time and volunteer, respectively, with neither time nor resources to research, draft, disseminate and enforce upgraded regulations to ensure that no new drinking water wells are installed in the affected area - which has town water - and that existing wells are all closed.

Simeone said it's no big deal. Besides enforcing existing regulations, which is, after all, the town's job, he said that a well moratorium similar to "no new wells" laws established in certain Cape Cod towns where the groundwater is contaminated would do the job.

Asked if the Army planned to mail out notices to West Main Street property owners, he said there was no such plan, but he agreed to share its database. 

Nehring also said people living in apartments on West Main Street should be notified that it's not safe to dig a new well or use an existing one for drinking, gardening, watering the lawn, washing the dog or even the car.

Although Simeone said there's "no precedent" for the Army paying a town or an individual, as Nehring suggested, to help with regulatory efforts or compensate for contamination, he agreed to take the selectmen's list to Washington.

As Pontbriand laid it out, the list looks something like this.

First, the town wants to "fully understand the ESD draft. ESD stands for "Explanation of Significant Differences" in land use controls to restrict use of groundwater. The ESD is specific to the Shepley's Hill Landfill (SHL) superfund site, former Fort Devens, MA.

Second, there must be a public hearing, preferably at Town Hall. "A lot of folks don't realize" what's going on, he said, and "something this big" warrants it.

Third, if the Army sends letters to homeowners and businesses in the affected area, the town would like a look-see before they go out.

Fourth, the "institutional controls" noted in the ESD, while fine in theory, in reality raise the concern that the Army will pull out, leaving the town with a problem it did not create.

Like the health board, the Board of Selectmen is an all-volunteer, elected board, with just 3 members and a 15-hour per week administrator and the Nashoba Area Boards of Health, which acts as Ayer's agent, has 15 communities on its roster. "We need added resources," Pontbriand said. "The selectmen can't deal with this issue otherwise."

Simeone said he didn't see the connection.

Zoning bylaw changes, for example, Pontbriand said. "We're concerned with impact, cost and feasibility of these institutional controls and need expert resources to assist us."

The selectmen have said they'd like Town Counsel to review the controls, too, "to protect everyone." The implication was that there's a price tag attached to all of those items. EPA and DEP also want to see a preventative plan that targets areas beyond the site; specifically, "groundwater exposure pathways" that branch from the landfill site to West Main Street in Ayer, affecting properties from the fire station to the bridge.

Basically, the Army maintains that remedies in process and further efforts aimed at preventing landfill-generated arsenic from getting into local drinking water should be limited to the site itself via clean-up and containment, with educational outreach when it comes to possible affected areas beyond the site, such as West Main Street in Ayer, where the arsenic plume is headed.

Located in the former Fort Devens and capped many years ago, the old dump site was identified as an area of concern (AOC) after the former Fort Devens closed, with most of the de-commissioned military base later designated as a federal "super fund" site.