WGBH Special Reports

After 30 Years And $1 B, Mass. Superfund Sites Still Toxic

By Beverly Ford (NECIR)   |   Monday, May 23, 2011
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May 23, 2011

The entrance to Iron Horse Park in Billerica shows no warning that the area is a Superfund site -- or even a warning that the property poses a health hazard. (NECIR)

In all his years as an attorney, Jan Schlichtmann has had few lawsuits so profoundly affect him as a 1982 case involving eight Woburn families and a public water supply contaminated by toxic chemicals. Profiled in numerous newspaper, television and radioaccounts along with the movie “A Civil Action” starring John Travolta, the lawsuit became a watershed event in environmental politics for Massachusetts and the nation.

Yet today, nearly 30 years after that landmark court case, the wells that supplied both toxic drinking water and a legacy of cancer to Woburn remain contaminated despite a $21 million cleanup effort. And no one, not even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which monitors the site as part of the federal Superfund program, knows whether humans are still being exposed to its witch's brew of chemicals, federal records show.

Read more

ASHLAND: 25 Years Later, Toxic Town Can't Come Clean

FIND YOUR TOWN: EPA waste site cleanup data

SEARCH: State list of contaminated sites

REPORT: Toxics in Massachusetts, town by town

“Woburn made people see the profound health effects that can occur from contaminated sites,” says Schlichtmann, who settled the 1982 case for $8 million. “The ugly truth is that the damage we do today will take a long time to fix.”

Woburn isn't alone when it comes to facing “the ugly truth” hidden in its soil and water. Twenty five other Bay State communities, all home to Superfund sites, still live with a toxic legacy despite millions of dollars spent to clean them up.

From Cape Cod to the Berkshires and beyond, few communities are left untouched by the contamination. With between 3,000 and 5,000 polluted sites currently listed with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and 40,000 others already cleaned up by that agency since 1985, the state remains a patchwork of toxicity. The worst of those sites, ones that pose an imminent health risk, rise to federal Superfund status.

In Massachusetts, 31 sites have attained that ranking. According to EPA records, at least one-third of those sites may pose a health risk to people living and working nearby. At five of those locations, the risk of human exposure is noted in EPA cleanup impact profiles, all compiled since 2010.   

At some sites like New Bedford Harbor where PCB-contaminated seafood is a concern, the exposure risk is listed as "not under control,” meaning that human contact with pollutants is possible. At other sites, such as the Industri-Plex site in Woburn where cleanup is estimated to run up to $13.6 million, contaminated groundwater continues to migrate to other areas, according to those same reports. At six other state hot spots, there is insufficient data to determine the status of groundwater migration or human exposure to toxins, the EPA cleanup impact profiles found.

Avoiding exposure is even more difficult at some toxic properties because there are no signs posted to warn of the contamination. Others, like Iron Horse Park in Billerica, are still open for business even though the EPA lists that location as one where human exposure is not yet under control.

In towns like Wilmington, where toxic waste discovered in 1980 still hasn't been fully cleaned up,residents worry that a spike in cancer clusters is caused by the poisonous brew found in the wells they were drinking from until the town closed them in 2002. The EPA, which added the 53-acre former chemical plant in Wilmington to its Superfund list in 2006, is only now conducting studies.

Even parcels that have been on the list the longest, like the Baird and McGuire chemical plant in Holbrook, ranked as the 14th worst site in the nation when it was added to the Superfund roster in 1982, continue to be tainted. Despite a cleanup effort estimated by the EPA totop more than $220 million, a groundwater study conducted last year under that federal agency's authorization found metals such as arsenic still remain in high concentrations on that site 30 years later.

Yet it's not just chemical companies that are running up the toxic tab. In a state where cleanup costs for commercial sites are estimated by the EPA to stretch beyond $1 billion, the biggest polluter may very well be the federal government.    

With six military facilities on the Superfund list, the federal government also is linked to at least six other contaminated sites in Palmer, Lowell, Attleboro, Concord, Tyngsborough, and Bridgewater, according to confidential EPA records of the top 100 "potentially responsible parties" obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

W.R. Grace ranks second with ties to seven sites in Woburn, Dartmouth, Acton, Lowell, Billerica, Bridgewater, and Tyngsborough, those same records show.

The cost of cleaning up all those toxic minefields remains unclear. EPA says the “potential responsible parties” who often pay for the cleanup are not required to release cost figures. Neither the EPA nor Department of Defense officials were able to produce cleanup figures for any of the six military facilities in Massachusetts.

As toxic waste continues to percolate in groundwater and remediation costs soar into the stratosphere, it all seems like bad news to enviro-conscious activists like Taryn Hallweaver, the Eastern Massachusetts community organizer for the Toxics Action Center, a New England-based advocacy group.

“We've got an industrial legacy like nowhere else in the country,” she says of the state's toxic history, which stretches back to the 1800s and the Industrial Revolution. “It's become a serious issue for Massachusetts. These sites just aren't getting cleaned up.”

A generation has already passed since the Woburn site and three others in Massachusetts landed on the EPA's list of the 114 most contaminated spots in America. Created in 1980 in response to health concerns over toxic waste in neighborhoods like New York's Love Canal, Superfund, -- formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act — is today comprised of more than 1,300 toxic hot spots nationally.

In Massachusetts, the four sites that made it onto the nation's first Superfund list are still on it. Sixteen others, all added during the 1980s, remain on that list as well despite more than $500 million already invested in their cleanup. A quarter of those 20 locations — New Bedford Harbor, Fort Devens, Iron Horse Park in Billerica, and Woburn's Industri-Plex site — still show signs of contamination nearly three decades after first being identified.

In western Massachusetts, where PCS Resources, a waste oil refinery and solvent recovery plant in Palmer earned Superfund designation in 1983, contaminated soils have been removed and cleanup levels achieved but in 2010, an EPA study of the site found that 1,4-dioxane, a contaminant not previously assessed, may be present on that property.

Part of the reason behind the snail's pace of cleanup is due to the lack of technology to quickly remove toxins from soil and groundwater. Cleaning up ground and water contamination is an arduous and cumbersome task that may take decades to complete, officials maintain. Site owners also force lengthy delays, challenging EPA decisions and balking at the cost of cleanup, creating a lull that can sometimes last for years. Yet, despite all the wrangling, EPA says it routinely collects 70 percent of all cleanup costs from the businesses that caused the contamination.

In 2002, however, the agency faced perhaps its biggest challenge of all when Congress slashed the Superfund's primary income source — a tax targeting industrial polluters that once generated about $1 billion annually. By the end of Fiscal 2003, the fund's balance was zero, down from a peak of $3.8 billion in 1996. Today, appropriations are made by Congress, which last month proposed cutting $23 million from the Superfund budget in a cutback that would slash it from $1.31 billion to $1.28 billion for the rest of the fiscal year.

Enforcement actions by the EPA supplement that budget, with responsible businesses paying for cleanup costs often under court ordered agreements, EPA officials say.

Still, the budget cuts have taken a toll. A precipitous scale-down of cleanup activity has cut mitigation by more than 50 percent, notes Ed Hopkins, the director of environmental quality for the Washington, DC-based Sierra Club.

“During the Clinton administration, roughly 80 sites were getting cleaned up every year" nationally, he says. “In the last eight or nine years, that rate has fallen by half and more recently, it’s been even lower.”

Yet despite that decline, state and federal officials — and even some environmentalists — are optimistic about our toxic fate.

Toughened federal regulations and more public vigilance have helped curtail the creation of new Superfund sites, says Robert Cianciarulo, chief of the Massachusetts Superfund Section for EPA. In fact, he notes, the last time a site was added to the Bay State's Superfund list was in 2006. Only three sites have made that list in the last 10 years, he adds.

“Our practices have really changed in that we're not creating new Superfund sites the way we have historically,” says Jo Anne Shatkin, CEO of CLF Ventures, the non-profit consulting arm of the Conservation Law Foundation. “Despite the fact that we have so many sites here and so many sites that still need to be cleaned up, we have made progress.”

Still, some worry that further budget cuts could take the sting out of the state and federal agencies that serve as environmental watchdogs, slowing down mitigation efforts even further.

“If EPA doesn't have the resources to investigate problems and enforce the law, it takes away the incentive for industries to clean up their own problems,” notes Hopkins. “We need to have a dedicated source of funding to get this job done in a timely way.”

Even Schlichtman agrees with that.

“We don't have another 50 years to clean up the messes we are creating now,” he says. “We have to take action to prevent this large scale pollution or we're not going to be around at the end of the century."

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a non-profit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University. BU journalism student Jenna Ebersole contributed to this report.

Human Trafficking in New England: The Series

By Phillip Martin   |   Friday, April 15, 2011
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The Falmouth Experience: Complete Series

By Sean Corcoran   |   Tuesday, March 15, 2011
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Some residents of Falmouth, Mass. say they're suffering headaches, insomnia and depression because of a 400-foot tall town-owned wind turbine that began operating there last year. Most scientists say wind turbines don't cause health problems, but the experience of residents has strengthened anti-wind sentiment in the region. WGBH's Sean Corcoran and Climatide's Heather Goldstone investigate the science and politics of The Falmouth Experience.

Part One: Life Under The Blades

Encouraged by the Patrick Administration’s goal to expand wind power, communities across the commonwealth are considering or constructing wind turbines. In the town of Falmouth, MA, some residents say a 400-foot tall turbine installed last year has changed their lives — and not for the better.

Extended Interview: 'You can't be forcing these on people'
Climatide Analysis: Wind energy: The onshore-offshore connection

Part Two: Sick From The Noise

Some residents of Falmouth say the sounds coming from a large, town-owned wind turbine are making them sick. While turbines are not silent, claims of health impacts, including sleep disruption, headaches, ringing in the ears, and depression, are often controversial. And there’s limited scientific data to resolve the debate.

Extended Interview: 'It put me into depression'
Climatide Analysis: Debating the future of renewable energy

Part Three: Flickering Light

Residents in the town of Falmouth say that a nearly 400-foot wind turbine has severely impacted their quality of life. They talk about noise and health issues, but sound isn’t the only thing generating discontent. There also are complaints about a phenomenon called ‘shadow flicker’.

Climatide Analysis: Is annoyance a health impact?

Part Four: The Green Debate

Efforts to install land-based wind turbines on the Cape have slowed, largely because of opposition to a turbine that was installed last spring in Falmouth. Prominent pro-wind spokesperson Liz Argo says the Falmouth experience is an isolated incident, but anti-wind advocate Eric Bibler says the same thing could happen anywhere.

Extended Interview: 'What can we learn from Falmouth?'
Extended Interview: "The towns are conflicted"

Part Five: Making Waves In The Wind Debate

Because of its strong winds, Cape Cod is a crucial part of Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to erect enough wind turbines to power 800,000 home by the end of the decade – a quarter of them on land. But complaints about a wind turbine in Falmouth are raising the possibility that one bad experience could jeopardize Patrick’s state-wide push for wind energy.

Climatide Analysis: Why not to dismiss the health impacts of wind turbines

WGBH Special Report: Recognizing Bruce

By Phillip Martin   |   Thursday, January 20, 2011
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Bruce Stuart. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

An estimated 15,482 homeless people eke out an often-solitary existence on town and city streets across Massachusetts.  About 20 percent of them are veterans. One of them is a former army soldier named Bruce Stuart.

Three years ago,WGBH's Phillip Martin stopped into a cafe in Cambridge and struck up a conversation with a man sitting alone on a bench. It was Bruce, and he was making drawings of the world around him -- or at least the world as he saw it.   That conversation led to more like it, and to the revelation of a complex human story.

 Bruce's story is not only about homelessness.  It is also about a man who has lived a life of both privilege and deprivation.  It is a story about unheralded artistry. And it is about the acknowledgement of individuals who have grown accustomed to being invisible and unknown.   

Part One: A Man Without A Home

We meet Bruce Stuart, a 63-year-old homeless man who lives in and around Harvard Square. Earning $5 by asking for it on the street wasn't always the way Bruce lived, and it's not the way Bruce defines himself. He's an artist, too.

Part Two: Enduring Street Life Through Art

Bruce Stuart has survived on the streets of Cambridge for the past ten years. He says he could not have done it without the help of strangers, or without his art, which gets him through the day. He has also found help and friendship in a Harvard librarian who gave Bruce a few dollars whenever he saw him -- and talked with him about music, another one of his passions.

Part Three: A Home For Bruce And His Art

After ten years of homelessness, Bruce Stuart has a show in a Cambridge art gallery, but he's not sure he wants to be recognized. His subsequent disappearance worried friends and locals who were used to seeing him around -- until they found him in a home of his own.

Series credits: 

WGBH's Senior Reporter Phillip Martin reported and wrote this series. Jay Allison was the editor. WGBH's Jane Pipik, Alan Mattes and Antonio Oliart were the engineers. WGBH's Jess Bidgood edited and produced the series for the Web.

Blue Hill Avenue: If A Street Could Speak

By Phillip Martin   |   Monday, October 25, 2010
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BOSTON -- On Sunday, congregants from dozens of Boston-area churches and synagogues marched to the site in Mattapan where a two-year-old boy and his mother were murdered in September. Two others were also killed in what police described as the worst shooting rampage in Boston since 2005.

These homicides, as well as other murders in recent months have largely taken place in urban neighborhoods abutting Blue Hill Avenue, the street that connects Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and Milton. Violence has given this street a tragic notoriety, but it's also a place with a deep history, and a present filled with complexity and alive with growth.

This week, we will take a closer look at Blue Hill Avenue.

Part One: Blue Hill Avenue, In Truth And Memory

During the last 50 years, this avenue has undergone dramatic changes: From Jewish neighborhoods to African American, Caribbean and Latino communities; from synagogues to churches; from kosher restaurants to those that specialize in jerked chicken.  And -- unfairly, many believe -- from having a reputation for commerce to one associated with crime. 

Part Two: Crime -- And Solutions -- On Blue Hill Avenue

Relative to other issues, crime ranks low for many Massachusetts residents in this election year, according to recent surveys. But it is a defining issue for thousands of Boston residents of three neighborhoods -- Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan -- where the vast majority of the city’s violence occurs.

Part Three: On Blue Hill Avenue, Community Abounds

The horrific murder in Mattapan last month, which took the lives of a four people, including a mother and her two-year-old child, has touched off a wave of religious vigils and protests in Mattapan. But a great deal of community organizing up and down Blue Hill Avenue takes place unseen and out of the glare of cameras.

>> Photoessay: Community, From Roxbury To Milton

Part Four: Blue Hill Avenue Looks Foward

Many residents who live on and near Blue Hill Avenue argue that the corridor is unfairly tainted with a reputation for crime. They point to a thriving commercial sector and new projects on the way as evidence of the community’s revitalization.
>> Photoessay: Faces Of Blue Hill Avenue

Monitoring The Coastlines On Climatide

Tuesday, September 28, 2010
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About the Authors
Phillip Martin Phillip Martin
Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at liftedveils.org.


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