ASHLAND — A crowd of Ashland residents voiced fears Thursday night that controlled blasting for a planned 398-unit housing development could disturb the adjacent Nyanza Superfund site, jeopardizing once again a town where elevated cancer rates had been linked to the chemical waste dump.
“We’re very worried about it and we have every reason to be worried about it because . . . we don’t want to have to be reliving this all over again,” said Roberta Soolman, one of more than 40 community members who turned out at a Town Hall forum.
The event was hosted by Town Manager Michael Herbert and the Board of Selectmen to inform the public and hear concerns about the Ashland Rail Transit Apartments, set to break ground in May.
Residents also voiced concerns about whether the approximately 150-year-old culvert that drains the entire 300 acres in that area could handle the increased volume of stormwater that would result from the project.
Both concerns were also raised by selectmen at the meeting and in a letter that Herbert sent on their behalf to state environmental officials last week in response to an updated environmental impact report for the development, a joint venture by Campanelli and Thorndike Development Corp.
The Superfund site, near the Ashland train station and south of the Sudbury River, was the location of facilities that produced textile dyes and other products from 1917 to 1978, the last 13 of those years by Nyanza.
The facilities generated industrial wastewater containing high levels of acids and chemicals, including mercury, polluting soil and groundwater. More than 45,000 tons of chemical sludge were buried on site, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
A 2006 state report linked elevated cancer rates in town to exposure to contaminants from the hazardous waste site. State health officials urged Ashland residents to consult a doctor about possible cancer risks if they swam or waded in certain polluted waters near the site before 1985.
The EPA has overseen a cleanup of the site that included construction of a clay, earthen, and geotextile landfill cap.
The development calls for nine buildings of one- and two-bedroom rental apartments, along with a clubhouse and a pool on about 28 acres separated from the Nyanza site by an MBTA access road. Ten percent of the units would be affordable.
The project recently earned approvals from the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission, and the town and Campanelli/Thorndike last September reached an agreement setting out project parameters. The developer pledged through the deal and in permitting to make payments to the town to mitigate for project impacts.
A different firm received approvals to build a 500-unit residential development in 2007, but never moved forward.
Campanelli/Thorndike still needs to secure design approval from the state Department of Transportation to connect to the MBTA access road, a process that includes the update to the environmental impact report. But Lloyd Geisinger, president of Thorndike Development, anticipates work starting May 1.
Geisinger and his blasting contractor said at the forum that they are confident the blasting would not pose a risk to the cap, citing factors such as the distance of the blasting to the cap, the higher elevation of the blast area, planned seismological tests, and the flexible nature of the cap.
Geisinger also noted that Ashland’s fire chief will get to thoroughly review the blasting plan since he needs to approve it.
“This is a very, very important issue, one we will take with the utmost seriousness,” he said. “But there is absolutely no basis that we have been able to uncover to think that this cannot be handled properly, prudently, without any event whatsoever.”
David M. Buckley, a project manager for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said, “The material is such that unless it’s significant I wouldn’t anticipate a major impact to the cap from that action.”
But concerned that the EPA and the state DEP had not been brought into the process, selectmen pressed the developer to work closely with those agencies and the town before and during the blasting. At their request, Buckley pledged his agency would station a representative on site in the early phase of the blasting.
But residents said they are still fearful because of the history of the site.
“This could destroy the town if something goes wrong,” Soolman said.
Another resident, Cara Tirrell, spoke of the trauma the town endured when so many people died of cancers, including several of her former classmates.
“We lived through the horror and the terror. And to think that now it could happen again” is disturbing, she said.
Moyra Traupe, a resident, said her son is a survivor of cancer the family believes he contracted playing in the fields near the site.
“Please, all I ask is you take every effort you can. This is a terrible thing for a community,” she said.
Tom Houston, an engineer hired by the town to review the plans, said that while the project would significantly increase the amount of water draining from the site, he could not predict how it might affect peak flow into the culvert. Still, given the age of the culvert, he recommended the town study the need for a culvert upgrade.
Selectmen said they wanted to see that study — to be funded with $111,000 from the developer — initiated as soon as possible. Herbert said he is asking the state to require that the developer not begin work until the study’s preliminary results are available.