While the state was prepared to call in the federal government to help clean up nearly 300 acres of severely contaminated land in Hanover, locals officials have managed to keep the $28 million job away from federal agencies for now.
The land in question is the former National Fireworks Co. site, which straddles Hanson and Pembroke and is loaded with mercury, lead, and other substances from centuries of industrial activity.
The state Department of Environmental Protection had set a June deadline for itself to reach an agreement with parties responsible for the pollution, then seek Superfund status, a designation given to the nation’s most contaminated sites. Under that scenario, the US Environmental Protection Agency would take the lead in getting the polluters to clean up the site.
But at the local level, there has been enough progress in negotiations with the liable parties that Hanover Town Manager Troy Clarkson and Selectmen Chairman John Barry met with DEP officials and expressed their interest in staying involved in the cleanup.
Selectmen have set the site’s cleanup as a top priority for next year, in the hopes of using some of the remediated land to spur economic development, one of Hanover’s biggest goals, Clarkson said.
Those materials ‘don’t go away easily, especially after decades of disposing of things down drains that then leached elsewhere.’
Moreover, Hanover doesn’t want the stigma of a Superfund designation, Clarkson and others have said, nor does the town want to see the delays that occur when the federal government gets involved.
As a result, the state decided to delay seeking Superfund status for a year, and Clarkson said he was “excited and encouraged” to receive word from Martin Suuberg, the DEP’s acting regional director, that local negotiations can proceed.
The contamination has been accumulating on the property since an 18th-century forge hammered anchors for the USS Constitution, more commonly known as “Old Ironsides,” according to town historical records.
National Fireworks, a legendary producer of pyrotechnics from firecrackers to cherry bombs, was a major employer in Hanover in the early 20th century.
Over the years, the site saw a number of accidents and explosions, including, most spectacularly, a deafening 1902 fire in which 2,000 cases of pyrotechnics detonated over a period of three hours, according to an account in The New York Times.
In addition, military agencies used the property to manufacture munitions and explosives from World War I to the 1970s. The push to get the sprawling parcel on a Superfund priority list was meant to force the Defense Department to take some responsibility.
Today, pockets of mercury, lead, and other heavy metals and solvents from the manufacturing processes are buried in the sediment of adjoining Factory Pond and Indian Head River, which is a tributary of the North River.
Munitions and other explosives were often exploded right in Factory Pond, accounting for levels of lead azeide, which was used as a detonator, said DEP spokesman Edmund Coletta. Other toxic materials were burned, he said.
“There was a lot going on over there no one knew about,’’ he said. Those materials “don’t go away easily, especially after decades of disposing of things down drains that then leached elsewhere.”
Fish in those waterways measure high levels of mercury, and signs are posted banning fishing there. Coletta said he is hopeful that following the remediation the prohibition may one day be reversed.
The property is designated Tier 1A, which applies to sites that contain the most serious level of contamination, according to state standards.
In the two decades since the site was evaluated by the EPA for contamination and pollutants, the state has completed three cleanup phases. Work so far has included removal of drums of chemicals left there decades ago by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Under Phase 4, ecological hazards would be excavated from the sediment or capped, officials said. On the table are six options, ranging from a temporary measure to remove some silt and soil for about $5 million to a $158 million plan to remove all hazardous materials, said Coletta.
“We are actively involved,” he said of the process, for which the median estimated cost of remediation is $27.8 million.
The current negotiations involve National Coating Inc., MIT, and the US Department of Defense, which all contributed to the pollution over six decades.
Tronox, once known as Kerr-McGee Chemical Co., settled with the federal government in 2009 and then went bankrupt. But $950,000 of that settlement will be available to help fund remediation, town and state officials said.
If negotiations don’t move forward as expected, the state agency will seek next year to get the feds involved, Coletta said.
“Right now, we have to make an assessment and come up with a plan,” he said.
If negotiations work out well, Clarkson said, it will provide an important boost for the town’s revitalization.
Clarkson was part of an effort in his native Falmouth to establish the nonprofit Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, which developed a technology park that has provided dozens of jobs.
“I will pursue that model here,’’ he said. “I can see incubator companies that can be turned over for economic development to the right people. The possibilities are only limited by our imaginations.”