By Jared Bowen
May 23, 2011
ASHLAND, Mass. — In the 1980’s, eight Woburn families received an $8 million settlement over toxic waste dumped near their homes by companies including W.R. Grace. It’s a relatively well-known story, due in part to the fact that the film A Civil Action, starring John Travolta, was made about the case. The case also helped prompt the Environmental Protection Agency began the expansive process of cleaning that and dozens of other polluted sites.
But thirty years later, that story isn’t over. A joint study by the New England Center For Investigative Reporting and WGBH has found that many Massachusetts sites, including the one in Woburn, still live with a toxic legacy.
One of those towns is Ashland, home to a plant whose waste practices ultimately turned deadly. Although the plant has closed and cleanup has begun, there’s still considerable contamination from the plant in the Sudbury river.
The town of Ashland was actively poisoned for sixty years. It started in 1917, when Nyanza, a company that manufactured dyes and pigments on a 35-acre site there, began dumping its chemical waste into the ground. This was a time long before environmental regulations, although residents like Bernie and Marie Kane certainly knew something wasn’t right. “It was talk of the water turning blue and yellow and people hanging clothes out and they were turning colors,” Kane said. “That was all right around the Nyanza site.”
“They would find deceased animals,” adds his wife Marie, from their new home in neighboring Hopkinton.
Nyanza operated until 1978. The poisoned land would remain untouched for another seven years, until the EPA gave it Superfund status and named it one of the ten most toxic sites in the country. The soil and water in and around the Nyanza site was a horrid concoction of hazardous waste.
Clean-up commenced, but by then the poison had taken hold. A cancer cluster emerged — one later linked by the Department of Public Health directly to Nyanza. “We started to pinpoint (cancer cases) on a map and it was amazing,” Bernie Kane says. “You’d see a whole bunch here, and a whole bunch there. It was amazing. Then all of a sudden all downtown, right around Nyanza.”
And ultimately, it was devastating. At just 25 years old, The Kanes’ son Kevin was diagnosed with lung cancer — one of four from his small high school class to develop highly unusual forms of the disease. Eleven months after his diagnosis, Kevin Kane died.
“He wanted it cleaned up,” his father Bernie Kane says. “He didn’t want it to happen to anybody else.”
Thirteen years later much — but not all — of the Nyanza legacy is cleaned up, buried beneath a serene field behind what used to be the Nyanza plant. It has all been swept into a containment area, explains Robert Cianciarulo, Chief of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Massachusetts Superfund Section.
“It’s a landfill (the EPA) constructed in 1992 in which much of the containment soils and sludge and other wastes were consolidated and kept,” Cianciarulo said. “Basically the cap is about four feet thick: A couple of feet of clay, plastic lining and top soil.”
Additionally, nearby homes have been fitted with toxic vapor barriers. Behind the containment field, the EPA carved out a giant trench to prevent rain and groundwater from running through the landfill and carrying contaminants to nearby waterways. But the nearby Sudbury River is already contaminated.
Despite 26 years of clean-up efforts costing over $50 million, Nyanza stillposes imminent health risks according to the EPA. Standing at the edge of one of the Sudbury’s bucolic reservoirs, Cianciarulo explains the biggest health threat is mercury in fish tissue.
“The cleanup plan that we’ve set out is thin layer capping, (by) adding a thick layer of clean sand or sediment on the bottom of the reservoir,” Cianciarulo said.
For now, though, the river remains a hazard. The reservoir is restricted land surrounded by a fence. But when Greater Bostonvisited, we found a man fishing, whom EPA officials immediately lectured.
Cianciarulo admits it’s a challenge to keep people off the property. “Where there are popular publicly accessible fishing spots, we do have warning signs posted throughout the river,” Cianciarulo said. “This again wasn’t one of those posts just because of its location. But we might reconsider that after today.”
Moneyis the chief reason the Sudbury is still contaminated. Unlike other Superfund sites, no one responsible for the Nyanza dumping is around to pay for the clean-up. So the federal government must foot the bill -- and with 1700 Superfund sites nationwide, there’s a line. “To the extent that resources are limited, hard decisions have to be made but I think the important point is everything will get funded,” Cianciarulo says. “I know there’s frustration out there for the pace of the cleanup now, but then if we’re weighing never vs. maybe a decade or more in some cases, we’re on the job.”
Which is perfectly fine for Bernie and Marie Kanes. The worst, they say, is over. “(The EPA) are monitoring (Nyanza) very carefully, but whether or not it will ever be free of contaminants I’m not so sure, Marie Kane says. “The cap that they put on there is very safe,” Bernie adds. “And they were very cooperative. They were good.”
This story was reported in conjunction with a study by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR). NECIR is a non-profit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University. BU journalism student Jenna Ebersole contributed to this report.
TOXICS IN MASS.: TOWN-BY-TOWN REPORT