The acid leak at Monsanto Chemical Co. began in the dead of a mid-August night 56 years ago, quickly filling Frank Dascoli’s Everett neighborhood with a noxious sulfur mist.
Rousted by the fumes, residents slammed their windows shut and phoned the police. People gasped for breath. Some reported their children were seized by fits of violent coughing as the acrid shroud spread through the morning over Chelsea, Revere, and Boston. Visibility on some roads was limited to 20 feet, forcing motorists, eyes tearing up, to slam their cars to a stop.
It was as if the entire region had come under an invisible attack.
Dascoli, 77, said he does not remember much about that morning — but not because his memories have faded. It’s just that the day of the leak, Aug. 12, 1958, wasn’t much different than many others he spent living near Chemical Lane, where Steve Wynn is now preparing to build a $1.6 billion gambling resort.
“It was a filthy hole back then,” said Dascoli, whose father worked at Monsanto for more than 20 years. “There were big sulfur piles that would blow everywhere. If you ever took a deep breath, you would choke.”
For Dascoli and others who recall — and endured — the property’s past, Wynn’s plan to build a five-star resort there is both deeply ironic and thrilling. One of the region’s most polluted addresses, a throwback to an unregulated era in local industrial history, is soon to become a gilded destination — for the moment, remarkably, the most important and talked-about patch of land in Greater Boston.
The Wynn project would reopen a section of the Mystic River waterfront that served as an industrial workhorse for decades, supporting production of everything from sulfuric acid to household cleaners to jet engines.
The land is nothing much to look at now, but its fallow appearance belies a history full of surprising chapters and dramatic incidents. Before it was taken over by industry in the mid 1800s, the tidal marshes were owned by Hawes Atwood, a founder of Boston’s Union Oyster House who harvested shellfish there.
Atwood kept a home in Everett, which at the time was dominated by farms and large homes with sweeping views of the waterfront. Over the years, however, farms gave way to factories, and many of those residences were replaced by oil refineries and chemical company buildings that eventually consumed the marshes.
Monsanto took over the site in 1929, becoming one of the Everett’s largest employers, and the source of considerable chaos. Its smoke-belching plants were prone to fires, explosions, and acid leaks that injured workers and alarmed thousands of people.
The company’s operations in Everett peaked before the environmental movement gathered momentum. There were few controls on pollution or awareness of the public health implications of contaminated air and water.
Even as Monsanto spewed chemicals into the community, and the Mystic River, the company’s payroll sustained thousands of families in the region. Industrial growth of any kind was good, it meant jobs and prosperity. Few questioned that calculus, even when noxious odors filled the morning air.
That fact of local life was underscored on a September weekend in 1949, when news about the Everett plant dominated the front page of the old Everett Evening News-Gazette. One story described yet another acid leak at the plant that had spread fumes into neighboring communities and triggered panicked calls to police.
The fumes caused “wholesale irritation of the upper respiratory organs among hundreds of families in South Medford and the Ten Hills section of Somerville,” the newspaper said.
That same day, a front-page editorial about Monsanto made no mention of the acid leak. Instead, it praised the company for being among the first to reestablish open houses for employees and their families after the war.
“Despite the fact that thousands of women here in Everett and elsewhere took places in plants during the war years, there are still thousands of wives and mothers who have never seen the interior of the plant where the breadwinner works, just as too many men do not have the faintest notion of how the dainty dessert they eat for dinner gets to the table,” the editorial read.
Dascoli remembers his father, who worked as a Monsanto steamfitter, describing the plant as a dangerous place, with large open vats of chemicals and other hazards.
“He’d say to us, ‘One slip and I fall into the tank,’ ” Dascoli recalled.
Sulfur, Dascoli said, was a constant irritant in their lives. “You’d wake up and sulfur would be on your car like it was snow. We just lived with it. What else could you do?”
Even today, more than 20 years after the plant’s closing, the property remains badly contaminated. The company that operated the facility was broken up in a complex process that led to the creation of several new entities, including Monsanto Co., which now makes herbicides and other products used in agriculture.
A spokeswoman for that company said it is engaged in the environmental cleanup of the Everett site and expects to continue that work under future owners of the property.
Wynn has estimated it will cost $30 million to remove high concentrations of arsenic and lead in the soil, and restore badly damaged marshes and coastal vegetation.
That work, due to begin by early next year, must be completed before construction can start on the resort, which will include a casino, a 500-room hotel, 94,000 square feet of retail stores, eight restaurants, a nightclub, and other attractions.
“It’s really hard for me to visualize, but it’s a wonderful thing that’s happening for Everett,” city native Mary Bagarella, 88, said of the casino. Bagarella recently appeared in a political advertisement urging voters to vote no on Question 3, a ballot proposition that would have effectively banned casinos and block the Everett project from proceeding. Voters by a wide margin opted for casinos in the Nov. 4 election.
She is among those with vivid recollections of the Monsanto era.
Spread across 70 acres, the gray and black complex loomed over her family’s home on May Street like a volcano, spewing smoke and chemicals that sometimes illuminated the night sky. The plant’s property was surrounded by two predominantly Italian-American neighborhoods that supplied many of the company’s rank-and-file workers.
“The fumes always started up right after supper,” Bagarella said. “White steam would shoot up out of the chimney and all of our eyes would start to tear up.”
As vividly as they recall the pollution, longtime residents also remember how it united them with neighbors who shared in their struggles and found ways to overcome them.
“We played in a playground with no grass and we all had 11,000 friends,” said Jean Chronowski, 70, who grew up on Lynde Street. “We were poor and we didn’t know it.”
Dascoli recalled how, even with the sulfur fumes and periodic fires, one neighbor kept horses on his property, and another had goats.
He said children had to get creative — sometimes mischievous — to entertain themselves. On winter nights, they would occasionally steal a water wagon from the nearby Esso company site and use it to flood the park at the edge of the neighborhood.
“We’d wake up in the morning and we’d have the whole park to skate on,” he said. Dascoli added that he and others would also sometimes sneak onto Monsanto’s property in the summer to go swimming in “rainbow colored” water.
During the 1950s, the plant was constantly making headlines due to a series of acid leaks, industrial accidents, and fires. Six workers were hospitalized in January 1950 after an explosion ripped a section of roof off a building used for manufacturing Santocel, an insulating material used in refrigerators and other appliances.
The Boston Globe reported on other major incidents at the plant in 1951, ’55, ’56, and ’58.
The 1958 leak released acidic clouds that blanketed Everett and parts of Boston, Revere, Chelsea, and Nahant. Low visibility on some roads caused motorists to stop their cars amid “coughing and weeping spasms,” according to the Globe.
“I had to shut the windows right away,” Mrs. James H. O’Malley of Chelsea told the newspaper. “None of us could stand it. The children were coughing and crying. Their throats hurt.”
The problems continued during the 1960s and ’70s, although with less frequency. In 1972, the federal clean water act established stricter waste-water standards, making it illegal to discharge pollutants into a navigable waterway without a permit.
Monsanto was flagged by some environmental groups as a frequent violator of the law. In 1983, activists from the environmental group Greenpeace were arrested after sneaking onto Monsanto’s property and blocking several discharge pipes. They claimed the pipes were being used to dump toxic waste into the harbor.
Eight years later, state environmental regulators hit Monsanto with a $1.2 million fine, the largest ever at the time, on grounds of attempting to conceal a large chemical spill into the Mystic River. State officials accused Monsanto of misrepresenting the size of the spill, reporting it amounted to 5,000 gallons when the total was really 40 times greater.
Though it sold a portion of its property in 1983, Monsanto continued to operate on the western side of the land along Route 16 until 1992. The company’s former chemical division funded the cleanup of that site, which is now the Gateway Center mall.
The eastern side of the property along Route 99 has remained vacant and was used in the 1990s as a dumping ground for material dredged during the Deer Island sewage project, which was part of a multibillion-dollar cleanup of Boston Harbor. Wynn is the only developer to mount a serious proposal for the property.
Chris Gordon, a project manager for Wynn, said the cleanup will take several months. The work involves dredging the Mystic and disposing of or capping toxic sediments concentrated at several locations. The soil — stained red, green, yellow, and white in places — is contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons and a variety of heavy metals, according to state environmental records.
“The amount of contaminated material is not huge,” Gordon said. “It just has to be very carefully handled.”
Once the cleanup is certified by the state, it will take about three years to construct the hotel and casino. Wynn has committed to building a 20-foot-wide harborwalk with overlooks of the restored salt marsh and coastal vegetation.
Many longtime residents are darkly comedic when they speak about the project, saying they just hope to live long enough to see the turnaround it promises. Charles DiPerri, 75, laughs when he thinks about it, remembering how the plant used to belch soot onto many of the homes in his neighborhood.
“Our mothers would hang out the sheets and they’d be covered with these black flecks,” said DiPerri. “Your eyes would burn from whatever was in the air. It was always the worst on hot summer nights.”
On a recent afternoon, he stood along a section of the waterfront near his family’s former home and tried to envision the radical makeover. It almost seems unreal, so far removed from the days DiPerri, his eyes stinging, swam in a discolored creek that split off from the Mystic.
“The water was yellow and blue,” he said. “We used to build forts there out of cardboard boxes. We didn’t know any better. It’s just what we were brought up in.”