Soil contamination remains testy issue at Town Hall

The Board of Selectmen chose to move forward in identifying sites of potentially contaminated soil within the town during its July 10 meeting.

As part of this action the board will petition the Board of Estimation and Taxation (BET) to consider the review of town records in search of evidence. Through the review, the town could potentially determine locations where hazardous pollutants and waste were dumped or used as fill for the soil. While the historical records can’t provide absolute certainty that a site is contaminated, they would provide further context for the town when considering new construction projects.

The fear of running into contaminated soil is being spurred by the town’s ongoing struggles with Greenwich High School’s music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project, which has suffered heavily delays since the discovery of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic and other pollutants in the soil at the construction site in 2011. Debate quickly engulfed the project, raising questions about the origins of the contaminants and the safety hazards presented by the discovery as the town worked to comply with guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Years later, the project has still yet to reach completion and has subsequently resulted in a substantial financial cost to the town because of the cost of cleaning up the contaminated soil. Now the concern is that any future town construction project, such as the building of a new municipal pool in Byram, could result in similar discoveries of contaminated soil, creating additional costs.

An investigation conducted by engineering firm AECOM revealed that the town provided material “of unknown quality” between 1966 and 1970 to fill the soil during the initial construction of the high school. The now defunct town incinerator on Holly Hill Lane and Cos Cob power plant have been identified as possible sources of the hazardous fill. The use of ash and waste as fill was common practice during that period, when there was no EPA to have guidelines, leading to concerns that other town properties are home to similar contaminants.

While speaking to the selectmen, Department of Public Works Commissioner Amy Siebert explained that a historical analysis is already performed during the first phase of project planning and expressed doubts that reviewing town records would be a worthwhile endeavor. The AECOM investigation into the MISA site utilized the historical analysis put forth by the department, but was still left unable to identify the exact source of the fill, or when it was placed. Because there were so few regulations over the transport and disposal of waste materials prior to the 1970s, Ms. Siebert said she felt that relevant records would be scarce and inconclusive.

Selectman Drew Marzullo, who pushed for this discussion before the board, countered by suggesting that billing statements taken during the pre-regulation period could still help the town determine when and where potential contaminants had been taken. Specifically, he suggested that shipping and billing records from the incinerator and local trucking services could provide pertinent information.

He acknowledged that those statements could not prove whether materials were actually contaminants, but asserted that having greater knowledge as to where fill was supplied would put the town in a better position.

“If you knew truck A took lots of ash, that’s questionable, to point B, would you test? And if we do, does that mean we’re bound to have to fix it?” Mr. Marzullo asked.

By law the town is obligated to address any positive test for contaminated soil, but by expanding its knowledge of dumping sites, the thinking is that the town can identify potential problem areas before formal testing takes place. Establishing a historical record could allow the town to better prepare for a scenario in which polluted soil is discovered, or disqualify certain sites from consideration entirely.

In addition to the obvious human risk, cleaning up polluted soil carries a heavy financial responsibility, leading the town to be more cautious as it pursues new public works projects. According to the 2014-15 budget, the town will spend another $9 million into soil remediation efforts at GHS this summer, in addition to the countless setbacks the MISA project has incurred as a result of the late detection of contamination.

Ms. Siebert maintains that the current process utilized by the Department of Public Works has proven effective in most every case besides MISA, and that historical considerations should occur on a case by case basis.

“We inherited a site that clearly was a large site that required a large amount of fill, and unfortunately much of that fill turned out to be of very poor quality. We all get that and no one’s happy about it,” Ms. Siebert said. “I’m thinking about other projects that we’ve done in other locations from a Public Works standpoint and, knock wood, we haven’t had that issue. So I’m hopeful that Greenwich High School is a unique site because it was so big, done at one time.”

Both sides of the discussion acknowledged the desire to prevent another saga like MISA, which had to be put on hold at significant extra cost as testing was done and a remediation plan formed and approved, but could not agree on what identification measures would put the town in the most ideal position moving forward. The BET has been asked to perform an audit of the documents in question, and will ultimately determine whether or not the review is worthwhile.

“A lot of the records were not kept — I mean there were no records,” First Selectman Peter Tesei explained during the meeting. “We’re trying to go back 60 years perhaps… and find something that maybe never existed. We have to be specific in what we would be asking them to do.”

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