AYER — Sweeping out the toxic aftermath from nearly a century of military activity is no small task, as evidenced by the ongoing cleanup effort at the former Fort Devens.
More than 350 areas of concern (AOCs) were identified after the base closed in 1994. Now, by the Army’s accounting, there are only two.
In 1996, the Army tackled its cleanup job at Devens under the auspices of its Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) arm.
Today, most AOC sites have been addressed, said BRAC environmental consultant Robert Simeone, and just two remain on the Army’s to-do list: The landfill at Shepley’s Hill and Nonoacious Brook and the body of water it drains into, Plow Shop Pond.
But because monitoring continues at some sites, the environmental watchdog group PACE still considers them of concern, said PACE president Laurie Nehring.
Established in the early 1990s, PACE was formed in conjunction with a grant from the Army to clean up a Superfund site, Shepley’s landfill.
Nehring said her group’s standpoint stems from about 20 “really difficult sites,” some of which are still works in progress.
But progress so far is encouraging.
With equipment graveyards and miscellaneous trash sites dotting the original map, locating areas of concern (AOC) must have been like a toxic treasure hunt at first.
Materials moldering beneath Devens’ sprawling acreage ranged from insecticide-laced foundations in base housing areas to rusted equipment and gas and oil at the motor pool. The Army, apparently, buried everything on site, from paint to trucks to ammunition at firing ranges.
One AOC site the Army has crossed off its to-do list, but PACE hasn’t, is the former Moore Army airfield, where fuel and additives seeped into the underground granite and started to spread into an aquifer that serves Ayer and other area communities.
An early fix for that — injecting molasses into the substrata to trap and biologically downgrade high levels of arsenic — has since segued to a new method that promises to work better.
The airfield was discussed briefly at the recent meeting of the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB.) Established as part of the cleanup effort, original RAB members were appointed by the base commander and consisted of representatives from Ayer, Harvard and Shirley. Today, the group is mostly Ayer-based but it’s charge is basically the same: To work with BRAC, whose environmental consultant, Robert Simeone, co-chairs the group. The other co-chairman is Julie Corenzwit, of Ayer.
Nehring and other PACE members are also active members of RAB, she said. At the monthly meeting on Feb. 26, resident Tom Poole called the grassroots group the “eyes and ears of Ayer.”
At its recent session, Simeone updated the RAB group and answered questions. Although meetings are usually small, the table was full Thursday night.
In attendance were Selectmen Carolyn McCreary, Richard Gilles, James Fay and (for a brief sit-in) Cornelius Sullivan; Nehring and PACE member Beth Suedemeyer and consultant Richard Doherty; Lynne Welsh of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP); James Murphy, Superfund community coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and well-informed town residents including Poole, former selectman Frank Maxant and Rick Andrer, whose property — along with other West Main Street residents’ — is in the landfill’s fall-out zone.
The main topic was Shepley’s Hill landfill and the areas it affects, including nearby Nonoacious Brook, which runs along West Main, and Plow Shop Pond.
One subtopic was communication, which Nehring said has been unsatisfactory. Simeone doesn’t disseminate e-mail messages and holds reports until somebody asks, she said, arguing for a more inclusive loop.
But Simeone said the lines are open and he provides items when asked. He’s “under no obligation” to share every intra-office memo, he said, nor to produce multiple copies of every report. Most data goes out on a “need to know” basis or on request, he said.
But Fay backed Nehring’s assertion that BRAC was less than forthcoming and said Simeone’s “body language” bespoke a dismissive attitude.
When BRAC program manager Bill Brenner intervened, the issue was set aside, if not settled, clearing the way for more productive conversation. This including a historic rehash of pond contamination, updates on long-term landfill cleanup goals and data from the previous meeting that some at the table weren’t privy to.
Nehring suggested outreach to West Main Street residents so they won’t dig new wells.
Simeone posited that the town’s zoning bylaws should take care of that.
Andrer wryly commented that he wouldn’t live long enough to see the cleanup completed, but won’t change his ways in the meantime. “I have wells,” he said. “I drink the water,” with no ill effect. “I’ll be the canary,” he suggested. The reference was to a crude method long-ago miners used to determine if air in a shaft was breathable or poisoned.
Fay later said the meeting was informative, and he’d been wrong about Simeone. “My initial impression may have been off the mark,” he said, adding that communication flowed well that night. “I was getting (that) this guy doesn’t want to be here,” he said. “Now I see that’s not the case.”