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Boxford’s feud with DOT over salt shed awaits court ruling

The outcome of a long-running feud between the town of Boxford and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation over a state-owned salt storage shed that contaminated dozens of drinking-water wells is now in the hands of a state Superior Court judge.

Lawyers for both sides made their arguments Dec. 19 before Judge Robert Cornetta in Lawrence Superior Court. Cornetta, the latest judge to preside over the five-year legal battle, is expected to issue a ruling early next year.

Boxford contends that the road salt operations at the MassHighway facility on Topsfield Road and the state's deicing on nearby stretches of Interstate 95 contaminated nearly 40 private wells with what the suit call dangerous levels of sodium and chloride that leached into the ground water over several decades. The suit seeks a permanent closing of the facility and a cleanup of the contamination.


"This sodium and chloride has not only caused adverse health effects in area residents, it has caused property damage, a loss of vegetation, and the death of livestock," Mark Reich, an attorney who is representing the town in the lawsuit, wrote in recent court filings. "The extensive contamination of the town's drinking-water aquifer can be traced directly to MassDOT's activities at the site."

Lawyers for MassDOT argue the town's lawsuit is "moot" because the agency stopped storing salt and deicing chemicals at the facility more than four years ago under a court order, and have asked the court to dismiss the legal challenge entirely.

"Any actual or imminent environmental harm from salt at that facility is no longer present," Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Lee, who is handling the case for MassDOT, wrote in recent court filings.

"Simply put, the factual predicate behind the town's claims no longer exist," he wrote.

Department of Transportation officials maintain that the salt shed is a critical part of its snow-fighting efforts along Interstate 95, one of the busiest highways in New England. They say the ongoing legal dispute with Boxford has made it more difficult and costly to remove ice and snow from the eight-lane highway during winter storms.


"As predicted, such obstacles have resulted in longer response times, potentially hazardous road conditions, as well as increased costs and expenses," Lee wrote.

Town officials dispute those assertions and say the salt shed is not necessary. They have submitted traffic crash data to the court for the section of I-95 for the years since the facility was closed, showing a slight decrease in highway accidents.

"These numbers clearly show that the closure of the Boxford facility has no impact on MassDOT's ability to maintain the roads," Reich wrote.

The dispute dates to November 2008, after Boxford's Board of Health issued a cease-and-desist order giving the state highway division seven days to halt operations at the site.

When the agency did not comply, the board voted to condemn the facility as a threat to public health and limited access to it with concrete barriers. The town filed a lawsuit the following day.

A few weeks later, a superior court judge ordered the town not to interfere with operations at the shed, but said the state had to cease storing salt there by the following June 30 pending resolution of the conflict. Lawyers for the Department of Transportation have made unsuccessful attempts to get the lawsuit tossed out over the years.


Boxford has no public water supply and most residents rely on wells for drinking water. Town officials said the contamination has affected dozens of households.

State DOT officials are in the process of conducting a study on the overall impact to Boxford of its salting operations on I-95 and at the shed. The findings of the study, approved by Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, are not due until July 2014.

Town officials said the contamination of water wells persists. A private consulting firm hired by the town recently concluded that the facility "continues to cause significant damage to the environment and down-gradient homeowners," the lawsuit states.

The Department of Transportation has replaced or installed water treatment systems on at least 30 water wells in the neighborhood.

In court filings, the state offers testimony from a resident whose well was replaced and now has "exceptional" water quality.

But town officials argue that those efforts have fallen short. In some cases, they said, the work was done without required well-drilling permits from the town.

"One of the wells was even drilled in the middle of the resident's septic system leaching field, which shows a total lack of competence on the part of MassDOT, and an extreme risk of irreparable harm to the resident's health and safety," Reich wrote in court papers. "Despite seven attempts to find potable water on this property, the resident still has to drink bottled water."


Christian M. Wade can be reached at