State and federal officials have developed a $3.7 million plan that would restore the pollution-damaged watershed along the Sudbury River containing one of the nation’s first Superfund sites.
Years in the making, the plan outlines restoration of the area around what was once the site of Nyanza Color and Chemical Co. in Ashland, a 35-acre parcel that still bears a legacy of mercury contamination and other environmental woes.
The impact of the state and federal plan - its creation overseen by multiple agencies at both levels of government - would extend far beyond Ashland to a number of area communities, including Framingham, Southborough, Wayland, Westborough, and parts of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Sudbury.
The plan is up for public comment through a period that ends Jan. 23.
In its scope, the plan would seek to restore not only wildlife and complex habitats to the Sudbury River and its surroundings, but it would also create new protected land and increase public access to the waterway.
The plan’s goals are to restore waterways for fish, control invasive plant species in water and on land, and establish new trails and refuges. It includes a school program and even a study of common local birds’ winter homes in Belize.
But mostly it focuses on the habitats and the things living along a river that once absorbed significant pollution.
“Obviously, a lot of people have been impacted by what occurred at Nyanza as a whole,’’ said John Petrin, the town manager in Ashland, where the textile-dye company’s contamination originated and persisted for more than 70 years, beginning in 1917.
“There are people who still fish out of these rivers, and we need to protect those folks as we go forward,’’ said Petrin. “But Nyanza has had more of an impact than the locus of the Nyanza site itself.’’
That’s a point echoed by Karen Pelto, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s coordinator for the Nyanza Natural Resource Damages Trustee Council.
The council negotiated with Nyanza representatives in 1998, gaining a $3.7 million settlement that is now meant to pay for the current plan.
While it had to wait about 10 years until the US Environmental Protection Agency completed portions of the soil and water cleanup around Nyanza as a Superfund site, in 2008 the council started in earnest to begin planning the land’s future.
“Our restoration project extends throughout the watershed,’’ Pelto said. “The definition of restoration, in this context, encompasses not just fish and vegetation but also the services those resources provide, the uses of the river, public access being one of the main uses of the river.’’
The Nyanza restoration project is separate from the EPA’s ongoing cleanup of the mercury still present in some fish - particularly in Framingham’s Brackett Reservoir - and also in some of the ground water around the Nyanza site.
According to Daniel Keefe, who works for the Massachusetts Superfund section of the EPA, humans still should not eat the contaminated fish. The EPA is also continuing to work on ground water that is contaminated with organic compounds, such as solvents, from the Nyanza site, seeking to prevent those pollutants from accumulating near residential property.
The removal of the varied contaminants is expensive. Keefe projected another $9 million to $17 million is necessary to finish the job. While the EPA does that work, the 11 proposals in the council’s plan outline the restoration of the waterways and land involved.
About $300,000 is marked for rehabilitation of native fish species, which involves stabilizing streambeds and restoring vegetation where they live. One location for that work may be Jackstraw Brook in Westborough, part of a network of waterways connected to the Sudbury River.
Other fish slated for attention, in the form of a study, are blueback herring and alewife that migrate along the Concord River, formed by the Sudbury and the Assabet in Concord. The scope of the migratory study would extend all the way to the Merrimack River as it passes through Lowell and Billerica. The combined price tag for both components is about $725,000.
The council proposes putting a stop to aggressive aquatic weeds, such as water chestnuts and purple loosestrife, and curbing invasive buckthorn in one 7-acre field, while bringing back the wild rice once plentiful along the river’s edge. The vegetation part of the plan would require some $1.1 million.
Also proposed is acquiring land for preservation. Early targets include a promised Raytheon Co. donation of a 5.5-acre riverfront piece in Wayland for which the council would pay only about $50,000 in transaction fees. A total of $720,000 would be set aside for acquisitions.
The goal, said Molly Sperduto, who represents the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the council, would be to protect what officials are trying to restore now from future runoff and pollutants that could result from development.
The council proposes creation of a new wildlife preserve in Framingham - encompassing land around the Stearns and Brackett reservoirs - priced at about $540,000. Slated as well: a new boardwalk and observation platform in Great Meadows, as well as upgraded outdoor facilities for its users, with a total cost of about $168,000.
Not everyone in the area is aching for that kind of expansion, however.
For Peter Pleshaw, a Town Meeting precinct officer in Framingham whose property is near Brackett Reservoir, adding trails near his Gryzboska Circle home threatens to bring what he said could be nuisance foot traffic.
“I don’t need a trail of people walking around in my backyard,’’ said Pleshaw. “Who do I know is walking back there? They want to bring natural habitat back? I can tell you, I’ve got turkey, foxes; I’ve seen deer and everything else back there. Leave it alone and I’m happy.’’
Sperduto said that such concerns, especially if they turn out to widespread, would be of interest to the council.
“The state is going to be meeting with folks in Framingham and Ashland,’’ said Sperduto. “We really want to evaluate whether his concern represents the concerns of many or only a few property owners.’’
But, if all goes well, what would be Pelto’s vision of a post-Nyanza future for the Sudbury?
“For people to be able to paddle down a lot of this scenic river and not get their canoes trapped in water chestnuts,’’ she said. “For waterfowl to have native food sources, to have the wild rice back. For my son to be able to say the herring are running again this year and it’s time to watch.’’