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Tales of a Toxic Avenger

By Susan Falkoff


Watertown Citizens for Environmental Safety (WCES) is one of many groups that sprang up across the country in response to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster in 1979 with the notion that local communities must monitor the local environment. WCES thought a good place to begin would be the Watertown Arsenal, a military research facility surrounded by barbed wire and all but invisible to the community in spite of the massive scale of its elegant red brick buildings. What was there, and was Watertown at risk?

Shortly after I joined WCES, in 1982, two ministers spoke with us about how much difference environmental activism can make. They told the gripping story of how ordinary citizens in Woburn had identified the source of a leukemia outbreak that killed several young children. Volunteers went door to door to identify families where there was illness, and then correlated this information with drinking water sources. When they mapped the data, a clear and devastating picture linked one drinking water well to the leukemia victims. The ensuing fight to hold W.R. Grace accountable for the deaths was well dramatized in the book and movie A Civil Action.

This talk has been pivotal to my life as an activist. What struck me most was that No one gave the Woburn citizens the map; they had to draw the map themselves. In Watertown, WCES determined to draw the map before anyone died. We were mainly baby boomers who had begun our activism during the Vietnam War years. If we mistrusted corporate America as embodied by W.R. Grace, if we doubted the ability of government agencies to protect us, we were that much more dubious that U.S. military had our safety as a priority. The National Toxics Campaign had recently produced a manual for groups like ours entitled “Fighting Military Toxics,” in which a certain Col. Norris from Woodbridge, VA was quoted as saying, “The military is in the business of protecting your country, not the environment.”

WCES learned that the Arsenal opened in 1816 for the purpose of storing, cleaning, repairing, and issuing small arms. During the mid-1800’s, the mission was expanded to include ammunition and pyrotechnics production, materials testing and experimentation with paints, lubricants, and cartridges; and manufacturing breech loading steel guns and cartridges for field and siege guns. During World War II, the Arsenal was given several awards for excellence in the production of war equipment. From then until it closed as a research facility, in 1997, the Watertown Arsenal was recognized as the lead laboratory for material, materials testing technology, lightweight armor, solid mechanics and manufacturing testing technology.

The legacy of this military glory, we learned, was 38 acres of contaminated soil, groundwater, surface water, and building interiors at a still-active base. The Army’s fist research nuclear reactor was constructed there in 1960. Although it was decommissioned in 1970, its radioactive core was intact. The practice of burning tailings from depleted uranium was ongoing, and we did not know how much of the radioactive dust was getting into the environment. Could an accident like the one at Three Mile Island happen here? The various toxic substances used in research were no less troubling. We had no evidence of a cancer cluster like the one in Woburn, but how could WCES be sure there wasn’t one that hadn’t been identified yet?

By the time the ministers spoke, our attention was focused on Arsenal Park, a public recreational space that had been created on a former part of the facility. Rumors kept surfacing about the tennis court: what was under the asphalt cover? We conducted a frustrating search for an expert in nuclear power who was not an industry apologist, eventually locating a professor from U Mass Lowell. He brought a Geiger counter to Watertown and tested the soil in the park. It showed some radioactivity, but then he demonstrated that yellow and orange fiesta ware plates registered much higher levels. What were we to make of this? Is danger so hard to measure?

After our meeting with this confusing scientist, we set aside our study of the Arsenal for several years, the early Reagan years, and focused on what seemed like the pre-eminent threat of nuclear war. In 1987, however, the Pentagon decided to reduce the number of military facilities. Our Arsenal was on the first list of bases considered for closing. The Boston Globe reported that it would take $200 million dollars to close it down, clean it up, and move the mission to another location. The implication was that the expense was related to contamination. A military official was quoted as saying, “They’ll have to take it away brick by brick …wrapped.”

My reaction was, “This is ours. The people around Three Mile Island need to fight for the safety of their land, the people in Woburn need to take on W.R. Grace, but, if we don’t figure out what the danger is at the Arsenal, who will?”

The cleanup, or remedial, process was initiated with a “scoping session,” where the community had an opportunity to share its concerns and knowledge with Army officials. I had nothing more significant to share than a general sense that there was contamination, and contamination is bad. When I stood up to speak to the men in uniform, my knees knocked. Literally. I had always thought that was a figure of speech. I resolved never to speak in public again unless I was well enough prepared to speak with confidence. Over the next years, I came to have many opportunities to hone my public speaking skills as I was appointed, first, to the town’s Reuse Committee (charged with making plans for the property after the Army left), and then as the committee’s Environmental Subcommittee chair.

My initial appointment, however, wasn’t automatic. The Town Manager appointed the Reuse Committee and selected mainly lawyers and business owners. The chair, John Airasian, was a local businessman affectionately thought of as the town godfather for his behind-the-scenes role in so many facets of town life, without holding elective office. He was not excited about dealing with a potentially crazed environmentalist. One Watertown woman was prone to reading her “Ode to the Dead Land” at public meetings. A Boston activist, a mad scientist type, occasionally came to Watertown and bragged unconvincingly about scaling the barbed wire fence and testing the filthy storm drains. Because of WCES’ environmental leadership at the Arsenal, I had been featured in a newspaper story entitled, “Toxic Avenger.” This publicity made me feel like an imposter since I hadn’t really avenged much of anything. I was even so conciliatory as to say in the article, “I’m giving the Army the benefit of the doubt,” but the story was still strong enough to worry town officials that I might run to the press with every unsubstantiated report or rumor. The town hoped to obtain significant tax revenue from a successful redevelopment and any suspicion of residual contamination would jeopardize this outcome.

Our then Town Democratic Chair (now gubernatorial candidate), Warren Tolman, was well aware of WCES, and prescient enough to realize the town officials would fare better with us on their side. He still enjoys reminding me of the several calls he made to Airasian’s resort hotel room, where he was vacationing with his family, during the selection process. The Town Manager had gone ahead and announced the committee without me when he was finally persuaded of his error, and so it was with some smugness that I read the additional press release that my appointment necessitated. Meanwhile, the Conservation Law Foundation, a well-respected regional environmental group, noticed that the EPA was dragging its feet in evaluating military sites for inclusion on the Superfund list. They asked WCES to co-sponsor an oxymoronic “friendly lawsuit” against EPA for failing in this Congressionally-mandated task. Now we had our own lawyer!

So, I prepared for my personal battle with the US Army. But the battle ultimately proved anticlimactic. The Army seemed not to want to fight!

A defining moment arrived when I saw our speaker from some Washington headquarters in tears outside a particularly testy meeting. He had prepared an admittedly lame presentation outlining the process by which a site is evaluated for remediation. First, you make some educated guesses about what you are looking for (Preliminary Site Assessment), then you look (Remedial Investigation, or RI), then you figure out if what is there is dangerous (Risk Assessment), then you look at available alternatives for cleaning it up (Feasibility Study or FS), and then you decide what you will do (Record of Decision, a.k.a. ROD). Being lectured on this “RI/FS” process is like the first chapter in every grade’s science text, and after a couple times through you want to scream “Where’s the content?” Plus, at this point, how would you know that this simple-sounding procedure will take one to two decades?

After a couple of these talks, a member of the Reuse Committee (not, mind you, the radical left wing of the committee, but the Chamber of Commerce representative) had blasted the poor presenter. “Don’t you dare ever come before us again with so little information,” she snarled. By this point in my life as a civic activist, I was getting used to the fact that supposedly mature adults sometimes abused each other publicly in this manner, but it truly had never occurred to me that their feelings get hurt. I was then the mother of two young children, and a social worker besides, so I was used to confronting tears, but all I could think was, “Oh, no, I have to take care of the US Army, too?” Startled, I realized that we were dealing with human beings here, not The Army, and over time, I could not fail to notice that many of them seemed to take pride in doing a good job of environmental restoration. How puzzling!

Each of the steps our speaker listed results in a document that is several inches thick, usually with volumes of appendixes even thicker. Each requires internal review, then regulator review and approval. Some also mandate formal public hearings. The process drags on. An early soil sampling effort had to be re-done because the lab performing the analysis was under indictment for fraud. A draft version of the “Public Involvement and Participation Plan” (PIP) was scrapped because it was “not up to our standards.” “What on earth do they mean by that?” we wondered. They didn’t even want us to see it they found it so contemptible, so we obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act, and saw that, in fact, it was not up to their standards. This document was one of the many “side” documents developed in the “RI/FS” which spewed out like the vegetable courses at a Thanksgiving dinner. Was the Army trying to wear us down with the sheer volume of the paper? Or just throw us off course by speaking only in abbreviations and acronyms? Not only that, but the number of people involved was staggering. I became accustomed to attending meetings attended by perhaps 30 people on a government payroll – and me, and John Airasian. We attended many meetings together, but who could have predicted the mutual respect we came to have for one another? I saw that in John Airasian’s world you expect to do more than whine that nothing is getting done; you expect results.

We learned the chain of command. Watertown base officials were accountable to a centralized Army Command on Toxic and Hazardous Substances, who in turn were under the jurisdiction of a centralized Pentagon Environmental bureaucracy. Occasionally, these bureaucracies inexplicably change their names and acronyms. Pentagon officials tend to travel in packs, and, in the early years when they wanted to make a point, they would send 6 or 8 seemingly interchangeable representatives at a time from Washington. The Army Corps of Engineers handled the actual cleanup, and the documents were produced by a variety of subcontractors. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) provided oversight, except that radioactive matters were under the jurisdiction of the state’s Public Health Department (DPH). In 1994, our “friendly” lawsuit won, the Watertown Arsenal was named to the federal Superfund list because of contaminated surface water runoff into the adjacent Charles River. This added another regulatory layer, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which then became the lead agency on outdoor cleanup, but the state retained its lead in regulating cleanup of indoor surfaces. Each of these agencies had a project manager, technical grunt workers, and its own public relations arm, charged with calming public anxiety.

Trumping all of these players is Congress. We were fortunate that a timely and thorough cleanup of the Watertown Arsenal became a centerpiece of Congressman Joe Kennedy’s local program. Joe became impatient with the turtle pace of the cleanup and called a meeting with Pentagon brass in his Washington office to get them moving faster. The town flew me down for the afternoon to attend. I felt like Clark Kent, leaving early from the inner city elementary school where I work, without telling anyone where I was going, and boarding a flight for Capitol Hill. Another time, there was an impasse over cleanup standards, and Joe bellowed, “Then have your lawyers find a way to make it possible.” I was learning how things get done in the world.

After a somewhat rocky start, all the parties soon realized that the best way to make progress was to share information. WCES fought for, and won, the right to see draft documents at the same review stage as the federal and state regulators. Anyone who asked was given drafts, re-drafts, comments, responses to comments, draft finals, and final reports of every document. We had more paper than we could have imagined, but we spoke up about what we read, and we saw that they took our concerns seriously and incorporated them into revised documents.

Nationwide, Pentagon guidance on dealing with local communities was changing, so high-ranking officials supported our involvement. While, formerly, secrecy was the order of the day, the military began to recognize that involving all “stakeholders”, including citizen activists, in the decision-making results in a better cleanup and avoids the nightmare of needing to remove crazed environmentalists chained to the fence. When one highly decorated major came to town and scolded us for wanting more cleanup after they had already spent so much on us, I was irate and called an Undersecretary of the Army, to ask him to keep this man in Washington. The major came back, but if he retained concern about our demands, he never voiced them in public again. Emboldened, I called the military and Reuse Committee members alike on all sexist language, and prohibited sports metaphors in the technical reports. Superfund status allowed Watertown Citizens for Environmental Safety to apply for, and then receive, a $50,000 EPA grant to hire technical assistance from a consultant of our own choosing. Our own consultant!

We anguished over how to evaluate 15 proposals from highly qualified consultants, one as far away as California, another in Washington, DC. My phone rang endlessly. We selected 6 finalists to interview in my living room, where the large poster boards some applicants had prepared to impress us were way out of scale. We were insulted as several tried to tell us what was important about our site. Although none of us on the selection committee were scientists, we had attended many meetings by now and we were pretty sure we knew more about contamination at the Watertown Arsenal than they did. In the end, we chose Jim Okun, a scientist who impressed us by telling us only about what he had done already, not what he thought we needed. We also liked that he was active in his own community, sitting on the Enfield, Conn. Board of Education, and that O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun, his small Springfield consulting firm, had a mission statement that seemed to imply a larger vision of how best to evaluate and clean up contaminated sites. Jim Okun has continually validated our perception that, while substantial cleanup is required, we are not at risk under current conditions, and that the documents being produced are, by and large, well written and technically sound. Without someone on our own payroll, how could we be sure?

By now (1994-5) the Remedial Investigation phase was winding down, and we had a fairly good idea of what types of contamination were present. In addition to the reactor, there were polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and PCB’s in the soil around the buildings, pesticides at high levels in the park across the street, and metal dusts on the building surfaces, all in amounts that were elevated above “acceptable” limits, but none staggeringly high.

In fact, at every point, the news about the Arsenal was reassuring. As far as we can tell, not one death can be clearly associated with the activities of the former Arsenal. We were beginning to see that we were not in the same predicament as Woburn. The groundwater is contaminated with solvents and gasoline constituents, but we do not get our drinking water from local wells. One eight-year-old boy who lived not far from the Arsenal died of liver cancer in 1994. This tragic death was traumatic to the community, but we could unearth no evidence linking it to the Arsenal’s activities.

Around this time, public involvement at closing military bases was institutionalized in the form of citizen review panels called Restoration Advisory Boards (RABs), with military and community co-chairs. Watertown was the first community to have a RAB up and running. We couldn’t fail to notice that the Army, its subcontractors, and the state and federal regulators did try to give us accurate information. Saying too little, as the early presenter learned, was not acceptable, but neither was overloading us with too much technical information. The project manager for the state devised cooking analogies to make incineration of toxic waste seem both comprehensible and benign, and the Corps of Engineers developed fact sheets that, after some practice had exactly the level of detail we could understand and tolerate. We began to see that we didn’t really have to draw the map after all; it was so much easier to Let them draw the map, and then critique it.

A professional activist on the issue of military cleanup once said to me, “They are trading more access to information for a lower level of cleanup.” It is true that it is hard to jump up on the table and scream for “pristine” once you understand more about the complexities of evaluation and remediation. Nonetheless, I often did want to scream. There were moments I could hardly bear to hear more men in suits calmly characterizing the contamination. After my mother died, it was particularly poignant to me that once something is dead, it really cannot be brought back to life; the Arsenal will never again be a pristine riverbank. I learned to keep these thoughts to myself in public, though my anger still exploded like tiny fireworks when I caught the slightest hint of being patronized or marginalized.

I never did have to decide what to make of thermal desorption (low-temperature roasting) or incineration (high temperature roasting) because the Army chose offsite disposal as the most practical means of remediation. It seemed true, but not usually helpful to mention, that with offsite disposal, nothing is cleaned, the problem is only moved somewhere else. The issue of not only “how to clean” but “how clean” preoccupied us for years. Do you clean to “background” levels? This arsenal sits in the midst of an urban area: what if your background is itself contaminated? How much is the Army required to do? Midway through our reuse planning process, the Pentagon made it explicit that the level of cleanup would not be “pristine”, or even “as much as possible,” but just enough for the intended reuse of the site. By then, the Reuse Committee had designated a part of the site for “commercial” which allows more residual contamination than “residential,” which was being considered for another area. I could see from the map that some of the areas where they planned to leave higher concentration of PCB’s 3 feet underground were in such inaccessible locations (on a steep bank, under asphalt) that it didn’t seem to matter much. In two of the locations, however, the distinction between cleanup standards struck me as arbitrary and unacceptable. Reuse Committee officials (including me), Army representatives, and Jim Okun met in the Base’s conference room to discuss the map. After 2 hours with no agreement, one of the Army people quietly suggested, “What if you wanted to put a day care center right there?” Jim Okun and I snapped to attention. Apparently day care (thankfully) is a different kind of commercial use than offices, requiring more rigorous cleanup. Such ambiguities taught me that, while the old scientific method might be valid for some things, an environmental restoration is a negotiated settlement with some wiggle room. My liberal arts degree is valuable after all! After this meeting, John Airasian said, “I learned something from you, Susan. When you decide something is right you just stand your ground and don’t budge, and you can win.” I did that?

Once the cleanup began, it moved quickly, with only a few glitches like the scandal of transporting radioactive materials in rented Ryder Trucks. (“We didn’t know it was illegal,” the Army Corps of Engineers complained, until the Ryder lawyers pointed out the fine print on the contract they had signed: “No transporting radioactive waste.”) Now we have a business park on this former munitions factory, and the town is raising money for an Arts Center. After a few years, the developer, O’Neil Properties, who had purchased the property for $16 million, sold it to Harvard University for $162 million. Any portion of the site used for educational purposes will now be tax-exempt. After all the rejoicing over increased tax revenue, the town is currently locked in a prolonged struggle with Harvard over a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement. The town manager, known more for his fiscal restraint than his radical activism, called a demonstration where aging town officials held signs like, “Go Yale.”

And the cleanup is not finished yet. In order to expedite development of the office park, the remedial process was split into different “operable units,” with portions moving ahead quickly while others proceeded at a slower pace. This summer, park area along the Charles River was re-opened to the public after PAH-contaminated topsoil was trucked away and replaced. As part of this project, the RAB successfully fought for wetland restoration along the riverbank, now one of the only areas of natural-appearing wetland in the Charles River lower basin.

Cleanup of the Charles River itself is still under negotiation. For several years, the regulators and the Army were on a path of agreeing there was contamination, agreeing the Army was party to it, and deciding that instead of wasting tens of thousands of dollars to study the contamination, money would be better spent on a restoration project. Meetings were held to solicit public input on what would be helpful to the health of the river and pleasing to the community. These ranged from more wetland restoration to removing outdated fish ladders upriver to dredging a channel for ease of access to the Watertown Yacht Club. Just as consensus on a preferred alternative was close, the Pentagon intervened and said that none of the projects were “fundable” under the Base Closure law. “Then have the lawyers figure out how to make it fundable,” we told them, but for some reason, even our Congressman was stymied this time. So now, we are in the middle of another ongoing “Remedial Investigation” and this one is widely expected to conclude with “No further action is required.”

We will do our best to alter that conclusion, but there aren’t a lot of us left still watching. Last summer, I met a technical advisor who had published an article on the lifespan of public interest in a project. Once the Record of Decision is signed, the method and extent of remediation is no longer negotiable, and it is common, he told me, for the public to lose interest. I sometimes say to Jim Okun, “Is this really a good use of my time?” and he points out that the wetland restoration that would not have come about without continuing public pressure.

I also say, “How can we tell this story when the outcome is that nothing very bad turned up?” “Isn’t that how most sites turn out?” Jim asks in turn. Thankfully, the stories, like Woburn, that become page one news are not the norm. Yet, when we started out, we didn’t know what we would find.

We are fortunate in Watertown, not only that our town is apparently not so disastrously contaminated, but also because while we were figuring that out, we also learned that peace can begin in our own communities. We have been amazed, at several points to hear the Pentagon speaking our language, of cooperation and consensus. In 1997 when the Arsenal closed as an active military research laboratory, a speaker at the closing ceremony said, “We retreat in peace.”

That day, the Boston Globe printed a column that I wrote about our work. Later, my words turned up as a sidebar in a Pentagon report to Congress on the Defense Restoration Program. “I used to say, ‘It’s us against the U.S. Army, and we’re holding our own,’ but now I talk of working with the installation officials and the Army, to ensure the proper cleanup of the Arsenal. There was much mutual mistrust to overcome, but we’ve made a lot of progress. Isn’t that how peace begins?” Reading that, I couldn’t help but speculate that what was happening in Watertown had national influence.

Now I say, “To change the world, you have to start somewhere.”


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