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Environmental Justice:
Examples from Local Communities
and Why You Should Be Concerned

Speech presented at the Environmental Justice forum
by Mike Nakagawa, member of Alewife Study Group,
February 3, 2000 at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School,
sponsored by the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program

abstract:

Through the example of efforts the Alewife Study Group undertook to obtain some assurance of public health during proposed development of the asbestos-contaminated W. R. Grace site in Cambridge, MA, the author highlights the difficulties that communities face in protecting themselves, and indicates an explanation of how environmental injustices can occur.
speech presented at the forum:

Hi.  My name is Mike Nakagawa, and as mentioned, I am with the Alewife Study Group.

I wish to thank the Boston Schweitzer Fellowship Program for hosting this forum and for inviting me to speak on behalf of the Alewife Study Group.  By highlighting our efforts, I hope others may understand the adverse effects on communities that are not aware of the activities in their areas, the importance of being involved in the community, and the possibility of an appropriate outcome despite the odds.

With little available land in established cities, developers seeking to place multimillion-dollar projects look to former industrial areas, many of which are contaminated - or are suspected to be.  I believe there are several factors contributing to the difficulty neighborhoods have in protecting themselves from potential health risks by such development projects.

One factor is the great inequity in resources available to neighbors compared to the developers.  Another is that even if enough community members can amass the time, effort, and knowledge to understand the risks associated with a project, the laws are often so vague or inadequate that they cannot ensure protection from the risks.  Most troubling is the reaction of the government offices,  which often seem to be more concerned with portraying that the public is being protected than with actually protecting the public.

As I support these claims, I’d like for you to consider what would have happened if our situation occurred without the benefit of an organized group of knowledgeable and tireless neighbors.

Before I describe, as an example, one of the issues upon which the Alewife Study Group - or “ASG” as we often call ourselves - has focused, I will provide some of the geographical and historical context.  ASG focuses on issues in the area of Cambridge near the Arlington border, by the Alewife T Station at the end of the Red Line.  Adjacent to the T station is a protected MDC reservation, and surrounding the station on the other side is a large former industrial area that includes the property of W. R. Grace & Co.

Many of the residences in the area originally served as housing for the workers at the area industries, and the neighborhood retains much of its working-class feel.  Currently, between the residences and the Grace Site is the Russell Field sports area with city-owned soccer and football and baseball fields, which are used extensively by school and municipally sponsored children’s leagues.

Controversy in the area started several decades ago with descriptions of colorful pools near the chemical facilities and odors and dust that would periodically fill the air.  Also, there are the sad recollections of how lifelong neighbors seem to have died primarily of cancer.  We are hoping to get help to conduct an epidemiological study of the area.

Things heated up again in the 1980’s when construction started on the Alewife T Station.  Neighbors asked questions about what was in the ground, particularly when the strong moth-ball smell of naphthalene, whose category as a carcinogen was recently upgraded, permeated the air in the mornings during and after construction of the subway tunnel.  The tunnel went through the Grace Site, which also includes property of the former Dewey and Almy chemical company that consolidated with Grace in the 1950’s.  Neighbors made little progress trying to get Grace to disclose what contaminants could be in the soil.

Since the Russell Field area was used as a storage area for the contaminated soil from the excavation, neighbors were worried about the soil under the ball fields, and were additionally concerned when Grace announced plans for a large development project on their property which would cause further soil disruption.

Former industrial sites tend not to be in neighborhoods of those who are most well-off.  Neighborhoods trying to uphold their quality of life must rely on volunteers who are usually sufficiently busy with just trying to hold together their lifestyles.  By the time the neighbors find out about proposed projects, they are already behind, because developers first approach city officials with their plans for creating jobs and tax revenue.  With millions of dollars at stake, developers hire lawyers and consultants devoted to knowing how to say the right things   to the right people with the right words.  Furthermore, in brownfield projects, risk management to facilitate the development tends to be the driving factor, ahead of public health, safety, or welfare.

In 1995, the Alewife Study Group was formed to represent the neighborhood in discussions with Grace and the city.  Through monumental efforts, ASG was able to substantiate the need for testing of Russell Field, and the non-profit organization named Alewife Neighbors was formed to oversee testing with funding secured through grants received from the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection, the “DEP,” and private donors.  Numerous chemicals and hazardous substances have subsequently been found at Russell Field.

The efforts to ensure adequate testing of the privately owned property at the Grace site, however, met with more resistance. But the company’s reputation preceded it, and neighbors were determined to identify the contaminants to which they might be exposed if construction were to occur.  After closer examination of Grace's historical account of site activities, ASG became convinced that their description was both inadequate and incomplete.  Anecdotal accounts from long-time neighbors inspired ASG to mount an extensive research effort searching through libraries and public records.  Eventually, the results of this effort convinced the DEP that the site should be tested for asbestos, despite Grace’s protests that there was no reason to suspect its presence.

In May, 1998, 14 locations at the Grace Site were tested for asbestos.  The results revealed that over 70% of those sites contained asbestos.  In a June article in the Cambridge Chronicle, Dr. Ron Goldstein, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, was quoted: "That's a lot of asbestos. It's unusual to find such large concentrations in the ground. I haven't heard of such high levels."

Consequently, in an October, 1998, meeting Grace’s consultants presented a plan for site-wide testing for asbestos.  Few people realize is that although guidelines for hazardous waste cleanup are set by the federal government through the Environmental Protection Agency, the charter for the enforcement has been given to the states.  The administration of former governor Weld privatized Massachusetts’ system so that private contractors are selected and hired by the owners of contaminated property, and these Licensed Site Professionals, or LSP’s, represent the state in oversight of cleanup.  I think “oversight” is often a very good description.  "Fox guarding the chicken coop."

The Cambridge Chronicle questioned the possible conflicts of interest of this system, and actually highlighted the case of the LSP for the Grace site and his 15-year relationship with W. R. Grace.

At the October meeting, neighbors questioned the reasoning for not testing some areas and for reduced testing in other areas.  The DEP agreed with the neighbors; subsequently, the plan was revised and testing conducted, but without further opportunity for public comment.  The test results were astounding: an estimated 600 thousand to 1.2 million pounds of asbestos in the soil.

For those not familiar with asbestos, it is a group of minerals extensively used for many different products because it is durable and heat resistant.  However, if the material breaks, the asbestos fibers can be released into the air and get trapped in the airways and lungs.  The body has no mechanism for removing or breaking down the small fibers, which have been unequivocally shown to cause cancer.

The effects of asbestos usually occur only after a long latency of about forty years, a particular concern for childhood exposure.  There is no known safe exposure level, despite numerous studies.  Furthermore, its durability allows it to remain intact in soil – it does not evaporate, dissolve, or degrade in the environment – until it is next disturbed, thus remaining a continuous health hazard if present in high activity areas, such as playing fields.  At the Grace Site, asbestos released from the site during the construction activities would likely land in the ball fields that run along the length of the property line, and both neighbors and children from throughout the city would deal with the consequences long after the developers had gone.

In May, 1999, the LSP provided this stack of documents of test results and cleanup plans for review, and just 20 days for public comment.  In June, Grace held a public meeting to discuss the presented material.  Along with these documents was one they had not planned to discuss, which described the removal, in April, of a 30 foot long underground oil storage tank from an area that tests had shown to contain asbestos.

When asked if the area around the tank was contaminated, the LSP repeatedly dodged the question saying the area was “precharacterized” for health risks, but did not admit that asbestos was found during the “precharacterization” until I quoted from their report.  I have to believe they were hoping that nobody actually had the time to read their report, which falsely indicated that the contamination was below the level that would require reporting to the DEP.

The consultants did nothing to protect the community during the excavation, and gave most nearby neighbors no warning.  When I first read the report, I was shocked to learn the work had already been completed.  What was particularly disturbing was they did the excavation as they were documenting the plan of how they were to conduct work in contaminated areas throughout the site, a plan that was to be presented at the meeting.  Furthermore, they attempted to cover up the inadequacies of their conduct with misleading statements that only outraged the audience as the inconsistencies were exposed during the meeting.

This behavior was from the group responsible for ensuring safe cleanup at the site - as they were trying to convince us they would do an adequate job.  Since they were acting on behalf of the state, perhaps it is no surprise that the DEP responded only by reminding the LSP that putting false statements in reports is illegal.

Disappointingly, at a second public meeting, even though the asbestos testing was shown to be inadequate to fully characterize the site, and the plans for containment would not guarantee protection from exposure, the DEP representative at the meetings said there was nothing he could do; that Grace’s consultants would have the final say, and that no DEP representative was officially assigned to the case and that none was likely to be assigned, due to lack of resources.

Most people, myself included initially, believe that government will protect them, as a matter of course, from serious threats to health or safety.  But even with the large amount of asbestos, the serious nature of asbestos exposure, and the proximity to children’s play areas and homes, we could find no laws to ensure our protection.  There were only vague statements that the consultant could choose to interpret in the loosest form.

The public outcry for basic protection finally got the attention of the Cambridge city government.  At a city-sponsored meeting to discuss the Grace site, it became disturbingly apparent that no government officials could ensure public protection.

At this point, ASG turned its focus to changing legislation to ensure enforceable standards of protection.  Working with city councilors - most notably Katherine Triantafillou, the city’s public health department, and other experts, the city-wide Asbestos Protection Ordinance was drafted.  Through our outreach efforts throughout the city to educate the public about the dangers of asbestos and the lack of protection by existing laws, we gathered a large demonstration of public support that forced the City Council to approve the ordinance unanimously.

The disheartening message from our work was the amount of effort required to ensure our protection.  Many thousands of volunteer hours have gone into our struggle so far.  We have contacted numerous public offices whose initial public statements are usually along the lines that they are there to protect the public, that laws or policies exist to ensure protection, and that they will ensure these are enforced and will take action if broken.   This is the first step in the process: public officials attempt to appease the public into inaction.

For doubtful neighbors who have been educated by past experiences, the next step is for the public to wade through all the technical documents to find out the laws and policies are often vague   and/or weak.  Going back to the public officials with this knowledge, the next step is to hear that there is actually nothing more they can do because of other pressing issues, a lack of resources, and/or limits of jurisdiction.    Usually, only when there is enough public support to create an embarrassment will a public office act.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the urban areas most in need of protection can reach this final stage, given the resources needed to reach it.  It takes more than just the knowledge of a danger to be successful; it takes an organized group with a good understanding of the laws and local planning processes and with the ability to contact, educate, and energize a large number of the public.

I want to stress that the issue of exposure to contaminants in soil is a current issue; for example, the developer at the Grace Site wants to break ground as soon as possible while the real estate market is hot.  The potential impact on high-density urban neighborhoods is large, and this is a situation that many metro-Boston neighborhoods are facing as developers look for whatever sites are available.  But not many neighborhoods are prepared to support their basic health rights.  Across the street from the Grace Site are three large affordable-housing apartment buildings, often known as Rindge Towers, which sit on contaminated land upon which we have not been successful in getting the city to act.

Incidentally, although I have chosen to focus on asbestos at the Grace Site, numerous other contaminants have also been found in the soil, such as tetrachlorethane and naphthalene, as was mentioned before.  Additionally, traffic generated by development projects contributes to further congestion and associated traffic pollution from an increase in area stop-and-go driving.  This is a particular concern near the Grace Site where sports activities, which increase respiration rates, occur next to one of the most congested intersections in the area as Routes 2, 3, and 16 overlap.  The air pollution at the fields is another concern that I hope will be studied.

I would like to point out that we have informational material here about the Alewife Study Group and some of our issues.  Also, we have a website: www.alewife.org, which has a lot of background information about the issues that I've mentioned, and others at the Grace Site and in the area.

We have shown that good things can happen, but only when people become active in the community and volunteer their time and talents for the greater good.  I hope I have alerted a few people to the dangers of complacency, and that you can understand why some of us have become active in the community.  Communities need all the help they can get to overcome the inequity in resources available to developers, to understand and, if necessary, change laws to allow protection, and to encourage government offices to be supportive of the general public.  Being involved is not a hobby, it's our duty, but it also allows you to meet some great neighbors and build a feeling of community.  I encourage you to be active in your communities for your own sake, and our collective future.

Thank you for your interest.

Contact the Alewife Study Group, North Cambridge Massachusetts, by email at information@alewife.org