The Quarterly Newsletter of Alewife Neighbors, Inc.  Spring 2000  Vol. 2, Issue 1
EPA Gets Involved
Federal Oversight at Grace Site and Russell Field
by Thalia Tringo
After many requests from local residents to have federal oversight from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the asbestos contamination issues on the Grace site and Russell Field, the EPA recently agreed to take on that role. A letter from the Alewife Study Group to the U.S. EPA elicited the following response from Mindy Lubber, Regional Administrator for Region 1, on May 24, 2000.
'Thank you for your letter of April 12, requesting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency immediately intervene and directly oversee the asbestos contamination investigation and remediation procedures at the W.R. Grace [Grace] property at 62 Whittemore Ave. and adjacent Russell Field.
In order to address your concerns, those of other Cambridge residents, and the Alewife Study Group, the Superfund Removal Program will perform a Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection at the North Cambridge facility. The goal of this Removal Site Evaluation will be to determine whether conditions at the site meet the criteria for a removal action, which are listed in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Contingency Plan (detailed in 40 CFR 300.415 (b)(2)(i-viii)).The evaluation's schedule depends on several factors including laboratory and contractor availability, site access and sampling. An On-Scene Coordinator (OSC) has been assigned to carry out this evaluation and will be in touch with you to get your input on this matter."
The OSC, Mary Ellen Stanton, began the preliminary site assessment and inspection process in June. The EPA standard level of sampling for such an assessment is only 3' below vegetation, which is probably above the level where asbestos will be detected. However, area residents remain hopeful that the initial EPA inspection will be followed by deeper soil analysis if Grace proceeds with its development plans, which involve excavation at a much deeper level and subsequent release of asbestos into the air.
National Coverage on the Grace/Russell Field Contamination
A recent article by Adrianne Appel in the Sunday, June 25, 2000 issue of The New York Times summarized the history of the contamination of Russell Field and the recent involvement of the EPA. To read the article, go to your local library, or access The New York Times web site. A link to the article can also be found on the ASG web site, www.alewife.org.
Grace Site Development Project Update
by Kelly Matthews
For some time now, the W.R. Grace Company has planned to build a headquarters office building, a four-story hotel, two other office buildings, and multiple parking lots on their land in North Cambridge. The total buildout size of these four new buildings will come to over 400,000 square feet, and the parking lots will cover 5 acres with blacktop. This means that most of the soil on the Grace site will be excavated to various depths in order to lay foundations. (As a point of reference, 400,000 square feet is approximately 4 times the size of the Henderson Carriage Building on north Mass. Ave., opposite KFC and Walden Street. The Henderson Carriage Building houses Frameworks, The Elephant Walk, the Bicycle Exchange, and many offices on its ground and upper floors.)
Because both hydrocarbons and asbestos were released on the land slated for development, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) requires that Grace proceed through the five phases of the Massachusetts Contingency Plan and that Grace take steps to communicate the results of each phase to the public.
So far, Grace has completed Phases I and 11, which required them to plan and execute tests for chemicals on the site (this is also known as "characterizing" the site). During these first two phases, Grace took soil, water, and air samples from various parts of the site. When the samples were tested, nearly one in five were found to contain asbestos. (Other hazardous chemicals, including naphthalene, were also detected.) Alewife Neighbors, Inc. (ANI) won a technical Assistance Grant from DEP to hire scientists to monitor the sampling process, and to conduct our own tests, which produced similar results.
This brings Grace to Phase 111, which requires a plan to remediate for the chemicals identified during testing. Grace's Phase III report has recently been released, and ANI's scientists at the firm of Geoinsight are preparing their analysis and critique of that report.
Once the Phase III report is approved by DEP, Grace will be able to move on to Phase IV, remediation, which they plan to do while they are in the process of construction. This means they could start digging foundations almost immediately.
In mid-June, W. R. Grace released a statement saying they were halting part of their planned development "indefinitely.' While local residents were relieved to read this information, they remain apprehensive for good reasons. Grace's statement indicated only that some of the development would be halted, and any portion of the planned development project may expose residents to airborne asbestos. In addition, Grace may reverse that decision at any time and commence development.
A public hearing on the Phase III report should be held soon. Look for a green flyer in your neighborhood, or visit the Alewife Study Group's web site at www.alewife.org for an update on the date and time.
More Asbestos Found on the Grace Site
by Thalia Tringo
In recent months, there has been a great deal of publicity about the devastating health effects of exposure to actinolite and tremolite asbestos by workers in a Libby, Montana vermiculite mine. The owner of the mine is the W.R. Grace Company. Acting on some anecdotal information that vermiculite from Libby had been sent to the North Cambridge W.R. Grace facility, the Alewife Study Group asked ANI to pay for additional testing of soil samples from the Grace site, and ANI agreed. The samples, previously tested using the Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) method, had already revealed the presence of both amosite and chrysotile asbestos. In order to detect some other types of asbestos, it was necessary to use a test method that allows for higher magnification, known as Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM).
Testing with the TEM method was originally proposed by neighborhood residents but was rejected by both Grace and the City of Cambridge as unnecessary and expensive. However, this spring, after examining samples that the PLM method had detected only amosite and chrysotile asbestos in the TEM method revealed the additional presence of tremolite and actinolite asbestos in the soil.
The discovery of tremolite and actinolite is significant for several reasons. Both types of asbestos are rarely found in New England, suggesting that some of the Libby, Montana vermiculite product made its way to North Cambridge. Secondly, amosite and tremolite maybe more likely to cause mesothelioma and lung cancer than other types of asbestos. The presence of the two varieties in the same area increases the health risk to local residents in the event the soil is excavated and the asbestos fibers become airborne. It also again calls into question Grace's repeated failure to disclose possible known contaminants on the site as well as the company's insistence that the TEM method of testing is unnecessary for their soil samples.
ANI will attempt to keep neighbors informed of the significance of these recent findings. At the present time, our ability to communicate regularly is limited by financial and human resources. For more frequent updates, log on to the Alewife Study Group's web site at www.alewife.org.
Oaktree: Bigger Than Any Rindge Tower and Built in the Floodplain
Will it worsen flooding along Alewife Brook Parkway?
by Aram Hollman and Lew Weitzman
Construction of a large development near Alewife T station awaits final City approval and the outcome of an appeal by local residents. Oaktree Green Development plans to build on a 3.3 acre site on Cambridge Park Drive, across from Bertucci's and behind the former Aku-Aku restaurant (now Summer Shack).The 9-story, 366,000 square foot building will contain 311 luxury apartment rentals, of which 36 will be designated affordable housing.
If built, the project would create the first housing in an area primarily used for transportation and business. While many residents approve of additional housing in the area, some of it affordable, they also question the lack of planning for the area and are concerned that the project will worsen existing traffic and flooding problems.
The site is entirely within the 100-year floodplain. Floodplain development decreases the ability of the ground to absorb water, thus increasing flooding in the surrounding area. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) states that "Development in, or adversely affecting, floodplains should be avoided . ' Developers building in or near a floodplain are required to supply a plan and a place for storing the floodwater that the new building will displace. The Cambridge Conservation Commission reviewed Oaktree's proposed plan and, despite some reservations about the proposed floodwater storage plan, issued a permit for it in April.
A group of neighbors shared the concern that Oaktree's proposed plan to store floodwater below ground within the floodplain will divert water away from the wetlands and into the sewer. Such storage is typically located above ground and/or outside the floodplain. In May, after reviewing the plan in detail with a hydrologist, the neighbors felt the storage was inadequate. They appealed to the Massachusetts DEP to override the Cambridge Conservation Commission's decision to allow Oaktree Green to build using their current plans.
The DEP investigator assigned to review the appeal visited the site on June 13. Both neighbors and Oaktree Development await the findings of that report. For more information, call Lew Weitzman (864-3431) or check the Alewife Study Group web site at www.alewife.org.
Board of Directors
Denise Guérin, President
Peter Cignetti, Vice President
Vicki Paret, Treasurer
Kelly Matthews, Clerk
Gretchen von Grossman
Alewife Neighbors, Inc. was formed in 1996 to serve the residents of North Cambridge by providing reliable information on quality-of-life issues as impacted by past and future development. The organization coordinates and participates in the monitoring and analysis of environmental, flooding, and traffic data collected with respect to development on parcels such as those at Russell Field, W.R. Grace properties, and the Alewife Reservation. ANI sponsors newsletters, neighborhood forums, and other public events. ANI is a tax exempt 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit corporation.