The Quarterly Newsletter of Alewife Neighbors, Inc. [] Summer 2001 [] Vol. 3, Issue 1

USEPA Reports Findings on Grace Site

by Joe Joseph

At the suggestion of the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), the Alewife Study Group (ASG)* requested a site investigation of the 62 Whittemore Avenue W.R. Grace facility. As explained to ASG, USEPA's standard procedure for site investigation is limited to surface soils, defined by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) as the top 3 inches.

The presence of asbestos was confirmed. Five sample locations were analyzed for volatile (easily evaporated at relatively low temperatures) compounds and semi-volatile compounds. Reportable concentrations of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were found. Asbestos was detected in 10% of samples analyzed by the less-definitive Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) method. However, 96% of samples analyzed by the more-definitive Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) detected asbestos.

Based upon the PLM analysis, USEPA concluded that - since no sample detection exceeded 1% by weight (USEPA's threshold) - the significant-risk threshold was not met and therefore the site does not qualify for Superfund National Priorities List status. Accompanying the USEPA finding were two comments from ATSDR in their Health Consultation report of March 20, 2001:


1. Based on the sampling results provided, the asbestos levels present in the surface soils on site do not pose an immediate or long-term public health hazard.

2. Subsurface asbestos contamination does not pose an immediate health hazard as long as the waste remains buried, and is not brought to the surface."

In their review of the USEPA report on behalf of Alewife Neighbors, Inc., GeoInsight, an environmental consulting company, listed deficiencies in the report, not one of which was disputed by USEPA. Alewife Neighbors concluded that:

"Asbestos was consistently detected in shallow soil samples collected from the W.R. Grace property by TEM methodology and asbestos was detected by TEM in soil samples in which asbestos was not detected by PLM. Because of the false negatives in the PLM analysis, the presence or absence of asbestos in Russell Field soil samples cannot be evaluated since the soil samples collected from Russell Field were analyzed only by PLM. Due to the low unit risk for residential and sensitive populations, any amount of asbestos fibers at Russell Field or in surficial surface] soil near the residences may present an unacceptable risk. The Report did not include an evaluation of the implications or risk from asbestos consistently detected in surficial soil samples."

For more information, including sampling plan summaries, results, and comments, visit the ASG website (

*The Alewife Study Group provides an informal forum for local residents to discuss public health and safety issues, to research information, and to facilitate public process about issues relating to hazardous waste, traffic, flooding, and protection of the local environment. They also maintain a web site with more detailed information on these issues.

[It should be noted that, while USEPA determined that the asbestos does not pose a risk if left undisturbed, this no longer applies if the area is excavated and developed, which is what W.R. Grace plans to do with the site. Furthermore, the excavation would go much deeper than the three inches USEPA tested, and most of the asbestos contamination is deeper in the ground. One microscopic asbestos fiber alone can cause serious and fatal lung disease. It is vitally important that no asbestos fibers are released into the air in North Cambridge. -Ed.]

Alewife Hit by Three '100-year' Floods in Last 5 Years

By Aram Hollman

Which storms are considered "100 year storms", of a severity so great as to be expected only once a century? The 1996 flood? The 1998 flood? The flood in March of this year?

If you answered "all three", you're correct. Based on the amount of rain that fell over a 24-hour period, all three qualified as 100-year storms. All three caused major flooding in areas of Cambridge, Arlington, and Belmont in or near the Alewife floodplain.

The degree of flooding that such a storm causes depends not only on the amount of rain, but on what that rain does when it hits the ground. Rainwater soaks into exposed earth but runs downward over asphalt or concrete, seeking the lowest spot. Dry earth can absorb more rainwater than wet earth. The most recent flood, in March of this year, actually had less rain than previous floods, but the extent of flooding was similar, because the ground was already saturated with melted snow.

Why is this happening? The chance likelihood of three 100-year storms in a five-year period is extremely small. Global warming may play a role in changing large-scale weather patterns, but it's difficult to prove that it has caused specific local changes.

Over-development within the floodplain is a much more likely cause. Below-ground construction, be it the basement of a house, the Alewife T station, or any of the many new buildings which have gone up over the last 20 years, occupies some volume of earth that previously absorbed rainwater. Building within the floodplain, the low place that water goes when it can't go anywhere else, is a much more likely cause.

What can anyone do about it? That's not easy. What's built is built. Nonetheless, a logical strategy would aim to improve the ability of the floodplain to absorb water. At the very least, adding more buildings and pavement could be controlled.

But more buildings have been proposed for the floodplain, not only in Cambridge, but in Arlington and Belmont. Cambridge's recent "citywide" rezoning excluded the Alewife area, leaving unchanged the enormous amount of real estate development that current zoning allows. Although Cambridge could adopt local conservation bylaws that are stricter than the minimal state laws it currently follows, it has yet to do so.

The City of Cambridge is poised to offer its own rezoning proposal that will only minimally lower the base zoning and allow a vast increase in the amount of building. Unless the City is persuaded to make rules that carefully control development, residents can expect more water in their basements.

West Nile Virus Update

By Mike Nakagawa

Last year, the West Nile virus spread from the New York City area to 12 states, including Massachusetts, and Cambridge responded with street-spraying of pesticides. West Nile virus infections usually result in either mild flu-like symptoms or no symptoms. However, based on last year's data, 1 in 150 infections can result in serious symptoms, requiring hospitalization and sometimes resulting in death. Last year, 20 people in the United States (all near New York City) had serious symptoms and 2 died.

By comparison, between 1000 and more than 2000 New Yorkers are estimated to die each year from the flu.

Last year, advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which thought that aggressive pesticide application might halt the spread of the virus, was to spray within two miles of an infected bird. Based on this advice, trucks sprayed much of Cambridge with pesticides last August in response to an infected bird found in Brookline. Two weeks later, an infected bird found in the Agassiz area of Cambridge triggered spraying of all the streets of Cambridge except Harvard University, which had banned spraying from its campus.

After reviewing the data from last year, the CDC decided their policy was not effective and is now focusing on preventive measures other than sprays.

Concern has been raised over the use of pesticides because they are toxins that studies have linked to cancer. Some people (such as children and asthmatics) and animals may be particularly sensitive to the pesticides, and the pesticides present environmental concerns. Also, truck-based spraying has not been demonstrated to be safe and effective against the spread of human West Nile virus infection, particularly in an urban environment.

The Cambridge Health Department set up a West Nile Virus Advisory Group, which included an Alewife Neighbors' representative. From this group, the recently-released City plan was developed. The key points of the plan include:

If you have any questions, contact the Cambridge Public Health Department at 617-665-3838 or e-mail Alewife Neighbors at

Alewife Development Heats Up;
Planning Lags Behind

by Lew Weitzman

The Alewife area continues to be the focus of intense development pressures. Dozens of acres of undeveloped land have recently changed hands in multimillion-dollar deals and a number of new developments have already broken ground.

The area around the Alewife T station (including CambridgePark Drive, the Grace site, and up to Route 2) appears to be headed for a new build-out of over 3 million square feet and 4,000 new parking spaces, on top of the existing 2 million square feet already built. This would rank as one of the largest single build-outs in Cambridge history, comparable in square footage to such projects as the Cambridgeside Galleria Mall area, University Park at MIT, or South Boston's highly publicized Pritzker waterfront development project.

New Projects

Below is a partial list of Alewife development projects already begun and those that are known to be in the planning stages. Other projects may be in the pipeline but not yet formally announced:

Planning Needed

What are the traffic impacts from these large developments? How will they impact area-wide flooding? What are the "highest and best" uses for the undeveloped spaces at Alewife? These and many other vital planning questions remain to be answered. The City of Cambridge has performed neither traffic studies of the Alewife area nor commissioned a hydrology study of the 100-year floodplain that encompasses nearly all of Alewife.

Typically, a redevelopment of this magnitude is accompanied by a lengthy period of city planning and numerous community meetings. For example, Boston's Mayor Menino has spent several years trying to build a consensus for the South Boston waterfront development plan. He and his staff have conducted countless community meetings and engaged in extensive negotiations with the developers. By contrast, Alewife development has been accompanied by relatively few public meetings and little city planning. Many Cambridge residents aren't even aware that building has begun.

There are several new attempts underway to jumpstart the planning process at Alewife. Cambridge City Councillors Kathy Born and David Maher have introduced a new zoning plan for the portion of Alewife near Route 2, and State Representative Alice Wolf has helped secure the funding for an MDC master plan of the long-neglected Alewife Reservation. Recently a "charrette" (public planning session) of architects and other city planners met to consider the case of Alewife.

Whether any of these initiatives leads to a full-blown planning process for Alewife remains to be seen.

W.R. Grace's Financial Troubles:
What Does it Mean for North Cambridge?

By Craig Kelley

Last winter, W.R. Grace Company filed for Chapter 11 protection, generally called bankruptcy. While this filing indicates that Grace is having financial problems, it is important to remember that the company is not going out of business. Unlike a Chapter 7 bankruptcy declaration, which results in liquidation of corporate assets, Grace is simply reorganizing itself while under court protection.

It is not entirely clear how Grace's Chapter 11 will impact North Cambridge. According to Grace's environmental consultants, the company is almost finished cleaning up its undeveloped land. The company claims its in situ bio-remediation (clean up) plan for this summer and fall will bring the whole parcel into compliance with state environmental laws. If that is true, then Grace is basically done with their clean-up already, and a declaration of bankruptcy should have minimal impact on the property's contamination.

If new environmental issues arise, or if Grace is incorrect in its assumption that the clean-up is mostly complete, their Chapter 11 filing may limit remediation options. Under Chapter 11, Grace has sacrificed its economic self-determination in exchange for court protection. Therefore, Grace can only spend its funds in a manner agreed upon by the court. Environmental remediation expenditures could be part of the Chapter 11 proceedings, but once the Chapter 11 is structured, it will be more difficult to deal with new problems that arise. It should also be noted that the State Department of Environmental Protection has not yet determined how the asbestos contamination should be handled.

For North Cambridge residents, there is another concern: Grace's Chapter 11 filing may increase the possibility that Grace will sell its undeveloped property to generate quick funds. It is also conceivable that Grace could structure its Chapter 11 in such a way that Cambridge or the MDC would obtain the property in exchange for a tax break.

In short, Grace's Chapter 11 filing is merely another chapter in the long saga of W.R. Grace in North Cambridge, but it is not the end of the story by any means.

MWRA Sewer Proposal Raises Concerns

By Aram Hollman

After many meetings and months of delay, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) and the City of Cambridge have submitted their latest proposal for changes to Cambridge's sewer system that will affect the Alewife area. The state of Massachusetts published the proposal on May 9, 2001, kicking off a 30-day public comment period on it.

Last November and December, the MWRA and the City of Cambridge held three public meetings on their proposed changes. They planned to propose changes shortly afterwards, but a massive outpouring of public concern at those meetings led them to delay the proposal.

This proposal is part of a larger, court-mandated project to separate storm and sewer lines. This must be done to prevent stormwater from flowing to and overwhelming the Deer Island sewage treatment plant, which results in the release of untreated sewage into Boston Harbor. The major concern is what will be done with the stormwater, which must go elsewhere.

At the meetings, there was widespread public objection to plans for:

Additional objections included inappropriate use of an MDC Reservation, impairing the Reservation's natural beauty, the environmental damage that building the retention pond would cause, inadequate removal of contaminants from stormwater prior to releasing it, failure to fully consider alternative locations for storing stormwater.

The 30-day public comment period on the sewer system proposal ends on Friday, June 8. Comments submitted during this period are important; the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will consider them as it determines what permits must be obtained, what issues must be addressed, and what problems must be resolved as the project proceeds.

Alewife Neighbors, Inc.

Board of Directors

Denise Guérin, President
Montgomery Street

Peter Cignetti, Vice President
Theriault Court

Vicki Paret, Treasurer
Montgomery Street

Kelly Matthews, Clerk
Jackson Street

Thomas Gould
Dudley Street

Mike Nakagawa
Madison Avenue

Thalia Tringo
Fairfield Street

Gretchen von Grossman
Jackson Street

About ANI

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.

02140 Credits: Vol. 3, Issue 1, Summer 2001

Thalia Tringo, Managing Editor
Daniel Kamman, Technical Editor
Steve Schnapp, Technical Editor
Mike Nakagawa, Technical Editor
Jennifer Fuchel, Designer


Aram Hollman, Joe Joseph, Craig Kelley, Kelly Matthews, Mike Nakagawa, Lew Weitzman