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Protest criticizes work that threatens Ayer’s aquifer

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AYER — You can say the decade-long brawl between Ayer and Pan Am railways is at a crossroads — literally.

In a bit of self-admitted theatrical protest Friday night, some 40 demonstrators took to the Ayer traffic rotary that serves as a crossroads for motorists traveling to Ayer, Littleton, Harvard, and Devens. Evening commuters were “toasted” by protesters holding goblets filled with toxic “cocktails.”

Dubbed “UnHappy Hour,” the group stood alongside a makeshift bar, complete with dishes filled with cocktail peanuts, where the drink du jour was a mix of “oil” and water. It was a not-so-subtle razzing aimed at Pan Am railway’s start of construction in April to pave much of the so-called San-Vel site off Willow Road. The group says it’s trying to raise public awareness that any fuel or chemical spills on the site, and even the paving project itself, could threaten the cleanliness and the recharging ability of the overlapping Ayer and Littleton underground municipal water draw areas.

Town officials recently reached a fledgling accord with Pan Am and its project partner, Norfolk Southern railway, to include Ayer public works officials on weekly on-site briefings for construction of the new truck-to-train auto transfer facility.

The détente follows lengthy litigation by the town against Pan Am predecessor Guilford railway to attach a long set of conditions to the project. A 17-point consent decree reached between the parties in 2003 serves as a bare-minimum set of standards to the town when different phases of the railway project unfold, because many aspects of the rail project, such as mechanisms of interstate commerce, are subject to federal and not local review.

Ayer selectmen recently reached out by letter to lobby the proposed tenant for the facility, Ford Motor Co., and Ford’s transportation agent, United Parcel Service, who will truck Ford autos in and out of the site. The letter urges the corporations to ensure that “the highest level of protection for the water supply is included within your development and operational plans at the site.”

At the “UnHappy Hour,” the goal was to draw attention to the damage to municipal water sources if there were any contamination to the aquifers. Many expressed outrage that a similar auto-transfer facility owned by Pan Am a half-mile away sits vacant, tied up in a long-term lease until 2017.

Rally participants believed it was the first time there’s been such a grassroots public protest against the project.

Organizers showcased locally produced food products on a table with a sign posted alongside that claimed the products were made with water from Spectacle Pond, the watershed region in question that feeds Ayer’s Zone II and Littleton’s Zone III aquifer-protection districts.

A six-pack of Veryfine’s “Fruit2O” flavored water, a 2- liter bottle of Diet Pepsi, a bottle of Aquafina water, a jar of Cains mayonnaise and a package of Nasoya Organic Firm Tofu lay side-by-side on display. All are made or packaged within a 5-mile radius of the proposed railway project.

Organizer Susan Tordella Williams said the cocktail hour theme was her idea. She thanked several supporters and family members for bringing the idea to life.

“I wanted to make it interesting,” she said. “Our drinking water is at stake.”

“It’s like skiing in an avalanche zone or building a skyscraper on a fault,” she said, adding that it’s “not a matter of if, but when” a railway mishap affects the water supplies, citing Pan Am’s history of hazardous spills.

Pan Am railway has had several mishaps in recent years. This spring, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office secured a conviction against Pan Am with criminal fines against the corporation in the amount of $500,000. The court-ordered punishment was levied against the company for attempting to cover up a August 8, 2006 diesel fuel spill where an idling locomotive parked in a Pan Am rail yard in Ayer leaked some 900 gallons of fuel, according to estimates prepared by federal investigators assigned to the case.

Despite a two-hour time period required for reporting any spill in excess of 10 gallons, the spill wasn’t reported by Pan Am that night or the next morning. Rather, investigators concluded Pan Am employees were involved in a coverup to avoid reporting the matter to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Also, the Littleton-Ayer Spectacle Pond Committee listed off several other notable spills in recent years at a community meeting on May 2:

* On May 30, 2008, a diesel fuel spill under 10 gallons was reported by the railroad at Willow Road and was cleaned up by the railroad’s HazMat team.

* On July 8, 2007, as much as 100 gallons of diesel fuel spilt in the Hill Rail Yard from a train’s leaking fuel line. The train was moved to Devens where it continued to leak causing two areas of diesel contamination.

* On Sept. 1, 2003, there was an investigation into a “modified trash barrel” containing empty bags of poison on railroad property off Willow Road.

* On Oct. 18, 2001, a tanker car leaked methanol at the Hill Rail Yard. It was a major incident controlled by the District 6 Haz – Mat Team.

* On Oct. 15, 1998, some 10-12 gallons of diesel fuel leaked at the Hill Rail Yard.

There’s been no comment yet from the North Billerica office of Pan Am railways President David Fink when contacted on Monday.

Also, there was no official comment from Cincinnati-based Sunny Delight Beverage Company, owners of the nearby Veryfine plant in Littleton, and the Ayer based companies CPF bottling and EPIC Enterprise canning companies that package Pepsi products and the Vitasoy company that makes Nasoya products.

Stacey Carroll of Ayer pushed a double stroller to the rally. It was the first protest for both of her sons, Jameson, 4, and Joshua, 9 months old.

“It affects them as much as it affects anybody else,” said Carroll.

When dared to ask Jameson to explain the purpose of the rally, the 4-year old answered, “They’re making a big driveway above the water and some oil might drop in and we won’t be able to drink our yucky water.”

“Hi, I’m Melissa Macdonald. I live here in town,” the mother of three boys said to Sen. Jamie Eldridge before they posed for a picture.

“It’s great you’re out here,” said Eldridge to the mother of twin 6-year old boys, Will and Owen, each holding a homemade sign and seeking a honk and wave from passing motorists. Their young brother, 2-year-old Teddy, sat in his stroller and watched.

“I stand with them,” said Eldridge of the protesters. Of the linkage of the local food companies to the railway issue, Eldridge said, “I’m going to reach out to them myself to have a discussion with them. This (rail project) is bad for their business, too.”

Meanwhile, a former parks commissioner who supports efforts to stop the rail project, but decried the manner of the protest weighed in.

In an e-mail to event organizers, Richard Hamel wrote, “Exactly what do you expect this to accomplish? I agree that something needs to be done, but the time for pure theatrics passed years ago.”

He continued, “I am no fan of Pan Am as they have already proven themselves to be an irresponsible neighbor … But I cannot drum up very much sympathy for a town which had multiple opportunities to prevent this, declined and now chooses to whine.”

“Citizens have the right to do what they have a right to do,” said multiterm Ayer Town Selectman Jim Fay. He’s been on both the select and planning boards through most of its dealings with the railway company.

Fay was surprised to hear of the protest, saying he though there has been positive momentum and cooperation between the town and railway. The olive branch was extended by Pan Am for town officials to attend a summit at the rail company’s headquarters after the company came under fire for starting site work in early April without the requisite two-month prior notice to Ayer before work began.

“The short answer is we already have a working relationship with Pan Am Southern. We have a legal agreement for the consent decree,” said Fay. “We have weekly meetings on the goals and objectives of the project, (so) I would not be in agreement (with the rally). It goes contrary to our consent decree.”

“I’m only one person, and so I can’t speak for the Board (of Selectmen). I’m not in favor of grandiose civil disobedience,” said Fay. “We have a program to reach our mutual goals with the principals of the project developer. That’s as good as it gets.”

Not according to rally participant Josie Carothers of Harvard.

“Clean water is an inalienable right,” she said. “Once water is contaminated, it costs society too much in this difficult day and age to get it back.”

Susan Tordella-Williams appeals to anyone who wants to join in the protest effort to try to stop the construction of the Pan Am railway auto transfer facility to contact her at stopthelot@gmail.com or by phone at 978-846-2811.

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