AYER — Please tell us next time.
That was the gist of Monday’s Ayer Board of Health hearing with Evergreen Solar Inc.
The Devens-based manufacturer of solar panels has had two substantial chemical spills at its Barnum Road plant since it opened in July 2008.
The first spill occurred last October. Ayer officials were notified some two months later, in December.
A more recent spill took place in February. Ayer was notified just last week, a month later.
More remarkable than the safety breaches and malfunctions that caused the spills are the “unacceptable” lapses in communications between the company, Devens officials and state Department of Environmental Protection officials in communicating the mishaps to the town of Ayer, according to DPW Superintendent Daniel Nason.
Ayer has oversight over Town Aquifer Protection Zones 1 and 2 that overlap parts of Ayer and Devens. In addition, Nason said, Ayer is the provider of drinking water for both communities via the nearby Grove Pond wellhead.
DEP Emergency Response Section Chief Nicholas Child was present at the meeting and said part of the problem was a mistaken assumption that Devens was a separate and distinct municipality and a lack of understanding of the water system concerns with Ayer.
Ayer Water Department Foreman Rick Linde stated that if he was given timely notice of the spills, he would have “erred on the side of caution” and stopped the Grove Pond water pump, to prevent any spread of pollutants underground via the pump’s draw. The well pulls water from underground sources at the rate of 1,200 gallons per minute.
The most recent spill occurred on Feb. 11 at 7:45 p.m. when 100 gallons of sodium hydroxide solution was released from an outdoor sump and containment dike area and slopped onto pavement. The spill eventually made its away into two storm drains on the Barnum Road site.
Massachusetts DEP and Fish & Wildlife officials, as well as federal Environmental Protection Agency officials, were all notified and on hand after the spill.
It “could have been a nice barbecue,” joked Devens Enterprise Commission Land Use Director Peter Lowitt.
“Next time, invite us,” quipped Michelle Carlisle, Board of Health administrative assistant, which prompted some chuckles.
The town was first notified of the Feb. 11 incident on March 17. The company has since overseen the cleanup via its contractor, New England Disposal Technologies, and reported the ordeal to the DEP, as required.
The earlier spill occurred on Oct. 15, 2008 at 7:45 a.m. (the manufacturer operates around the clock). At that time, 500 gallons of a toxic ‘cocktail’ (including hydrofluoric, nitric and sulfuric acids) were released from a sump and containment dike. The acid mix traveled over pavement, storm drains and soil and eventually ended up in a retention pond at the site. Ayer wasn’t notified of the spill for nearly two months. Again, the company has reported its remediation efforts to the DEP as required.
On Tuesday, Evergreen’s environmental health and safety manager, Wayne Wirtanen, made a presentation on how the “state-of-the-art” facility processes raw silicone into brittle, black glassy wafers which are then bonded together into cells that ultimately become solar panels.
During the process there are various treatments, baths and etchings performed on the silicone involving various chemicals, Wirtanen explained, and the staff performs several safety checks, while some machines are automatically equipped to do so.
Child praised the planning that went into the creation of the massive retaining pond that runs along the Barnum Road facility. “It’s doing what it’s designed for,” he said. Anxiety over the spills should be lessened by the pond’s existence, he stressed.
Child said of the initial response, “We treat it as a maximum (spill) and then ratchet it back,” for the sake of safety. He defended the company’s emergency response, adding, “Evergreen was very open with us.”
“It’s great that ‘everyone’ was notified,” Nason stated, “Why weren’t we notified in a timely fashion? Especially the Water Department?” Linde added, “You’re right on top of our (well) head.”
When asked to inform the town of any future spills, Wirtanen immediately answered, “no problem.”
The company agreed to conduct a tour of the Evergreen Solar plant for Nason, Linde and Ayer fire Chief Robert Pedrazzi, so that they can see the plant and its safety features first-hand.
Ayer Board of Health Chairman Margaret Kidder said similar requests will be made of other Devens businesses operating within the town’s Aquifer Protection Zones. A list of those businesses is now being compiled.
Kidder said she wants notification made to the Ayer Board of Health, Department of Public Works, Water Department and Fire Department for all future spills which require reporting to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.