If you drive north on Greenough Blvd between Arsenal Street and Cambridge, the Charles River will be on your right but to the left is “The GSA site,” a desolate area of crumbling cinder block buildings and overgrown wetlands surrounded by chain-link fence. What a mess!
The GSA site was state parkland until 1920 when the Army created a disposal site there, for waste products from weapons research at the Watertown Arsenal. In 1967, the Army turned the site over to the federal General Services Administration (GSA) to prepare it for public use and transfer back to the state.
The military use left contamination from both radiation and toxic chemicals. The part of the Arsenal that is now a thriving office park and arts center had resources from both the Superfund program and a fast track program to clean and reuse closing military bases. The cleanup of the GSA, on the other hand, has been going on for over 40 years.
The end seemed near in 1988 when, at the insistence of Congressman Joe Kennedy, the Corps of Engineers agreed to completely remove radioactive contamination. When that remediation was nearly complete, however, the Corps discovered an oil spill. In the several years that it took to address the oil spill, radiation standards changed and the Army had to re-test the area for radiation. The site was again declared clean of harmful radiation levels in 2004.
Yet even while the radiation cleanup was ongoing, chemical testing showed unacceptable levels of other contaminants, especially lead, in the soil. The Army Corps proposed to clean the land to be safe for its intended use as soccer fields, but not clean enough to be suitable for playgrounds for younger children. Community members, with considerable support from then-Senator Steven Tolman, rebelled, saying, “Too fine a distinction. If it’s safe for youth soccer, it needs to be safe for their younger siblings to play around while they watch the game.” The Watertown Conservation Commission suggested an alternate use: walking trails and wetland restoration. Part of the site is already wetland and an enhanced wetland would clean groundwater headed toward the river. Trails would provide a recreational benefit to the public. The Corps readily agreed to this solution after calculating cleanup standards; the lead levels were actually already within acceptable levels for passive recreational use.
With this agreement, the Army and the state Department of Environmental Protection were ready to declare the property ready for transfer. Community members and the DCR were quite concerned about the fate of the three buildings. They are crumbling and they are contaminated with asbestos. Why would the state accept the land in this condition? Every federal agency involved in the cleanup denied that removing dangerous buildings was within the scope of its authority. It seemed doubtful that the state government would be willing to undertake the expense of asbestos-disposal, either.
The transfer was thus at a stalemate when, in 2008, Rep. Rachel Kaprielian arranged funding for yet one more study, to confirm that the property is safe for transfer. This study found high levels of PCBs, a contaminant that had never previously been detected at the site. The conversation about cleanup began anew.
The Army suggested capping the contaminated soil and covering the cap with clean fill. Citizens were concerned about the long-term safety of a cap and also pointed out that capping would destroy a wetland. This would not be permissible under federal law, unless the wetland is replicated elsewhere. Where in Watertown could one possibly find the space for a wetland replication? The Corps and DCR solved this dilemma by negotiating an agreement to remove the buildings as part of the soil remediation. Since the buildings are essentially capping a wetland now, demolishing them will facilitate restoring the wetland at that location, in exchange for capping some of the PCB-contaminated soil in the current wetland, further east. The mosthighly contaminated soil will be disposed of offsite.
This creative remediation plan owes a great deal to the efforts of current legislators, including Congressman Edward Markey, Rep. Jonathan Hecht and Sen. Will Brownsberger. The Corps has assured us that the project is fully funded. With thanks to all of the people, elected, appointed, paid and volunteer, who made this happen, we look forward to walking through the new wetland and throwing our bursting clipping files and document binders into our green recycling toters.
We urge all citizens to come to the Town Hall meeting on November 19, ask questions, and learn more about the Corps of Engineers plans for Greenough Boulevard.
Susan Falkoff is a Councilor-at-Large and Ernesta Kraczkiewicz is Chair of the Stormwater Advisory Committee.