Alewife Study Group > W. R. Grace site > community feedback > Jun. 7 2001, on W.R. Grace trench plan Search 

Applicability of Cambridge Asbestos Protection Ordinance
to W.R. Grace excavating a utility trench at 62 Whittemore Ave.

(This communication was sent to the Cambridge City Councilors.)

Dear Councilors:

We have recently been made aware that a version of the applicability of the City's Asbestos Protection Ordinance has been forwarded by Sam Lipson that is at variance with our own. We would briefly like to explain our point of view and hope that it illustrates our differences more clearly:

1. On October 3, Sam Lipson wrote to WR Grace that their sampling of the Trench Excavaton Area was acceptable. This sampling included 18 samples at 35' intervals at a depth of 5 feet fully composited.

This same sample set was rejected by USEPA because according to their protocol, compositing cannot be done over the entire sample but rather at one foot discrete intervals. The methodology used (Polarized Light Microscopy) is so imprecise that a 5 foot composited sample would render a meaningless result. Unless the sample is composited at one foot intervals, the additional 4 feet of cleaner fill would dilute the sample. PLM as a methodology for analyzing samples is not powerful enough to overcome such dilution. The letter sent to WR Grace by Mary Ellen Stanton raising and explaining this issue is attached to this e-mail. Paradoxically, this area is the only area of the Grace site utilizing this 5 foot composited methodology. If some wanted to use a method that intentionally guaranteed a result of non-detection, this would be an excellent choice.

2. Mr. Lipson's acceptance of Grace's historical description of the trench area as an active RR bed (and hence not likely to have been a dumping ground) is non-sequitur. Because it was an active RR bed, it is likely that such contamination would exist there. Rails were utilized commonly as transport for raw materials. The normal process of loading and unloading and thereby 'handling' asbestos and asbestos containing materials was typically primitive. For example, description of the transport of raw asbestos-containing vermiculite includes unbagged product in rail cars loaded by hoppers. Methods utilized to unload these cars varied greatly in efficiency. Historical information does help to inform how the ordinance might apply, but the interpretation of such information should be applied with greater discernment. At best such information should only be used to reinforce other information that is less speculative.

3. In characterizing the area in question as a "limited zone" (page 1, para. 4 of the October 3, 2000 comment submitted to WR Grace, Mr. Lipson is supplanting his own fictitious language for the actual language of the ordinance. Mr. Lipson is inventing a category that is neither manifest nor implied by the ordinance. The ordinance requires tenting and venting if a property is within 500 feet of a residence or recreational area. The word property is the actual language used by the ordinance. It is nowhere defined in any part of the ordinance as anything other than the entire site. The ordinance gives Mr. Lipson no special authority to invent or create any other meaning for this term. In characterizing the trench excavation area as a "limited zone" Mr. Lipson has invented a way to subvert the intent of the ordinance.

In addition, the conditions that trigger the 'tent and vent' requirement are three. In this particular case, two conditions are clearly met:

   (a) the level of contamination is serious, i.e. at least one 5% asbestos sample and a mass of asbestos greater than 20,000 pounds

   (c) the proposed soil disturbance is in close proximity to residential areas or children's play areas, i.e. within 500 feet.

Condition (a) is met simply because asbestos detections of 11% (Grace's own data) were discovered. Grace claims that the distribution of the total amount of asbestos is random and hence cannot be estimated. A standard methodology verified by MADEP has been applied to arrive at an estimate of total fiber contamination. This methodology and the relevant calculation can be found on the ASG website. It is certainly in excess of 20,000 pounds. Regardless of disagreement of total amount, Grace's own sampling data (11% detection levels) make this condition apply.

Condition (c) also applies because there are residences and play areas within 500 feet of the excavation area.

4. It has been suggested that the proposed excavation is covered by Section 8.61.060 Exemptions. This section applies to allowed disturbances due to emergency repairs and maintenance of underground utilities. Neither of these categories apply. This project is described by Grace quite clearly as a "Utility Upgrade". It involves abandoning overhead service lines in favor of a new underground line which will service recently refurbished office space. This is not maintenance of existing service by rather consolidation through installation of new service. Grace has not explained why the exterior service cannot be upgraded in place of potentially unnecessary excavation.

We would like to point out that the most effective and acceptable solution to this circumstance which is applicable to the site as a whole is to interpret the Asbestos Protection Ordinance as it was intended and thereby eliminate confusion on behalf of the DEP, the EPA, and particularly the abutting neighborhood who looks to its faithful and full implementation as a guarantee that the City is overseeing their right to the highest public health standard in a meaningful and acceptable manner. As the current Mayor might say, "This is not rocket science". It is merely serving the public.

Thank you for the opportunity to clarify this. If there are any other questions, please let us know.

On behalf of the Alewife Study Group,

Joe Joseph
20 Kassul Park

Contact the Alewife Study Group, North Cambridge Massachusetts, by email at