Alewife Study Group > W. R. Grace site > community feedback > Jul. 4 2001, opinion - in Cambridge Chronicle - on W.R. Grace trench plan Search 

W. R. Grace utility trench in North Cambridge
- opinion in July 4, 2001 Cambridge Chronicle

[As published in the Cambridge Chronicle, July 4, 2001, on the Opinion page - page 7.]

City should exercise Asbestos Protection Ordinance

Cambridge residents who have followed the activities at the W. R. Grace (Grace) property for over two decades appreciate the recent Chronicle coverage of the issue. In particular, we applaud the thoughtful coverage of complex issues in its most recent article ["W.R. Grace project on indefinite hold," June 27, 2001]. Despite its depth, however, this article, and the editorial commentary in the same issue, require clarification with respect to both the proposed project and the Cambridge Asbestos Protection Ordinance.

Grace has proposed digging a 500-foot trench, 5-feet wide by 5-feet deep, to house conduits for a new electrical service. Extensive soil testing has confirmed that asbestos contamination is spread throughout Grace's 27-acre site. Given this reality, public health dictates that Grace limit soil disturbance to what is minimally necessary. In any case, given the site's proximity to residences and children's play areas, work should fully conform to the City's Asbestos Protection Ordinance.

Asbestos is not harmful unless it is inhaled or swallowed, at which point microscopic fibers can become permanently lodged, causing serious and fatal diseases including cancer, often many decades after an initial exposure. Most federal agencies including the United States Environmental Protection Agency recognize that there is no "safe" level of asbestos exposure. Despite extensive regulations governing indoor and workplace asbestos exposure, state and federal regulation for asbestos exposure in open areas is minimal. After Grace removed an oil tank, with municipal and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection permission, from an area with a significant asbestos contamination but with no protective measures in place, the City Council, working with neighbors, took steps to protect the public from future asbestos exposure risks. The result was the unanimous passage of the Asbestos Protection Ordinance in 1999.

The Ordinance requires that properties with a history of industrial asbestos use be tested for asbestos before disturbing the soil. If significant levels of contamination are found, then protective measures must be used. The Public Health Department has the discretion to determine protective measures for specific sites unless the potential for exposure is substantial, in which case a physical barrier, such as "tenting and venting," between the asbestos and the community is required.

It has been suggested that this project may qualify for an exemption from the ordinance. Exemptions to the ordinance may be granted for repair or maintenance of underground utilities, but not for installation or upgrade of new utilities. Furthermore, Grace has yet to demonstrate that other less-disruptive methods for an electrical upgrade could not be used, given the risks of digging on a contaminated site.

Justification for the applying the highest possible standard has already been established. It is commonly accepted that testing cannot definitively indicate the limits of asbestos contamination. Grace's own environmental consultant acknowledged the limitations of testing and has proposed a plan that would "treat all fill soil disturbed at the site as if it is asbestos-containing." Reinforcing this point of view, U.S. E.P.A. has characterized test results from the proposed trench area as "meaningless" because of the methods used. In the absence of certainty, site-wide application of the strongest precautions during soil disturbances are clearly justified.

Individuals and neighborhood groups have simply urged Cambridge Public Health officials to properly enforce the Asbestos Protection Ordinance at the Grace site. The reason for this request is not, as suggested, because citizens believe that the City is "kowtowing" to Grace. This request is made because if the protective measures of the Ordinance are not fully enforced, the precedent of non-enforcement will become the norm for future work at this or other similarly contaminated sites in Cambridge. Selective enforcement may result in needless exposure to health hazards for people who live and play near highly contaminated sites.

Although the Asbestos Protection Ordinance is complex, it is not "ambiguous." It was written precisely to remedy the ambiguities of minimal state and federal regulations. In addition, and appropriately, the ordinance sets a higher standard than other regulations because the public should not be exposed to a known, irreversible but easily preventable health threat just because someone else wants to save money.

The Ordinance protects public health in a way that state and federal regulations do not. We encourage the City to exercise this power before it is forever lost.

Madhvi Patil of 51 Madison Avenue, has a dual-doctorate in biomedical engineering and neuroscience. Her neighbor, Craig Kelley of St. Gerard Street, practices environmental law.

[The following text was in a box on the same page.]

Related information

Text of Asbestos Protection Ordinance can be found at

A description of the removal of the underground storage tank is available in the Cambridge Libraries. The document is entitled: "Report on Underground Storage Tank Removal, W. R. Grace & Co.-Conn, Cambridge, MA" (UST Report) submitted May 11, 1999. It has pictures of piles of (unwetted) dirt, hoisting of the tank into open air, etc.

EPA statement of "meaningless" test results can be found in the section: "Subsurface Characterization of the Utility Trench Area" - pages 9 and 10 of the letter from the EPA's on-scene coordinator during the EPA's evaluation of the Grace Site.

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