State environmental officials provided flawed oversight and poor communication during a recent pilot test related to the upcoming cleanup of the General Chemical Corp. property, Framingham health officials asserted in a letter last week.
The town’s Board of Health wrote to Kenneth Kimmell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, asking for his direct intervention “to ensure a prompt, effective and safe closure” of the hazardous-waste storage facility and to include local health officials in the process.
General Chemical filed a notice of closure for its South Framingham facility on March 1, after years of concerns from residents and town officials about potential health hazards to the neighborhood, which includes the adjacent Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.
On June 26, General Chemical, overseen by the DEP, performed an air-monitoring test to help evaluate its cleanup plans. Samples were collected to screen for a variety of volatile organic compounds and air pollutants at several locations both upwind and downwind of the cleanup, according to Joe Ferson, a spokesman for the environmental agency.
“While [General Chemical] and MassDEP are still compiling the data, we can say at this point that the level of air pollution did not exceed any health limits during the test,” he said.
‘We did make every effort to reach out to the entire community and . . . to let nearby residents know the time and scope of the test that would be taking place.’
Full data should be available around Friday, and plans are to proceed with cleanup soon after, he said.
But the Board of Health is protesting its exclusion from the June 26 testing, calling the DEP’s outreach to inform the multilingual neighborhood of the plans “a failure,” according to the letter signed Thursday by Ethan Mascoop, Framingham’s director of public health, on behalf of the full board.
The Board of Health “observed serious health and safety breaches from our position outside the fence,” the letter said.
“We believe it is our right and our duty to assist, advise, and inform MassDEP during the closure process,’’ said the letter, calling Framingham health officials the “eyes and ears” of the local community.
In addition, the Board of Health is asking that the DEP’s Business Compliance Division be included in the oversight. The DEP’s Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup staff was present at the pilot test for air monitoring, as opposed to overall closing procedures, according to the board’s letter.
Despite input from the Board of Health and other Framingham officials, the DEP did not use local expertise in communicating with residents of the neighborhood, where the native languages include Portuguese and Spanish as well as English.
“We had to empty the playground of various people, ask direct abutters to close windows, and warn passersby of the potential for risks,” stated the letter, referring to the evening that the test was conducted. “This highlights the need for consideration of experienced local agencies such as health, fire, school and police departments, whose input was largely shunned.”
Ferson, the DEP spokesman, said Thursday that the letter was being reviewed but he could not respond in detail immediately. He said the state environmental agency engaged in an extensive outreach effort before the testing.
“We did make every effort to reach out to the entire community and reach as many of the nearby residents as possible,” said Ferson. “Outreach was done to let nearby residents know the time and scope of the test that would be taking place. This included reverse-911 calls to 1,400 residents and 200 businesses within a 2-mile radius of the facility, notifying [a] local Metrowest radio station that broadcasts in Portuguese — WSRO-AM, based in Ashland — as well as notifying local officials including the school department, the Board of Health, the town manager, the fire, and police.”
Now that the test has been performed, the cleanup will begin in earnest on July 28, said Ferson, and should be complete Aug. 15. The dates are meant to take advantage of a small window when Wilson Elementary is not in session. After that, there will be a longer, more complicated cleanup process concerning the ground water.
Calls to General Chemical in Framingham were not returned. No one was available for comment at the corporate headquarters in New Jersey.
The town’s letter noted Kimmell’s “personal commitment” to Framingham and the General Chemical closure, and said there had been some improvement since a recent meeting with him.
“However,” the letter continued, “the events leading to and including the June 26th pilot test were very disappointing, not fully protective of the public health, thwart the [Board of Health’s] efforts to cooperate with MassDEP, and hinder an effective, safe and prompt closure process of the site.”
A group of residents called the Framingham Action Coalition for Environmental Safety has been vocal in criticizing the DEP, particularly on the outreach effort. One member, Anne Sullivan, said it’s an environmental justice issue because the cleanup location in South Framingham includes low-income residents, many of whom don’t speak English.
“If it were in Sherborn or Newton or Brookline, in a different community, even in a different part of Framingham, they would not have gotten away with it,” said Sullivan. “There would have been an outcry. They don’t face any kind of public response really except for a very small group like FACES, but we’re going to grow.”