Later this month a water treatment plant will switch on in Plaistow to clean ground water at a notorious former oil dump. The total bill for the cleanup of what’s now known as the Beede Superfund site could reach nearly $70 million dollars. This site is now on its way converting from brownfield to greenfield, but illustrates how the law governing the cleanup of superfund sites can also be messy.
Jeano Poulin worked at Shaw’s service station in Manchester for 20 years and when his boss retired in 1999 he bought it. It wasn’t too long after that he started getting legal notices in the mail, saying he was being sued because of pollution at the Beede Waste Oil facility, which had been closed since 1994.
“In my eyes, I never contributed an ounce, not even a vial-full,” says Poulin.
He went to court, but says in the end he had to pay $10,000 dollars. For him the whole situation is unreal. “Here I am in a predicament where if I was to pay all this money, up to what they want and my lawyer fees, I would be bankrupt."
He says The most absurd part is the Beede site was licensed by the state, and listed as a place to send waste oil. Poulin and thousands of other businesses, towns, and individuals who disposed of oil there were playing it by the rules, but are still on the hook to clean up.
Welcome to Superfund law.
“Fairness in the Midst of the Madness”
“It’s what is called cradle to grave,” says Sherilyn Young, a lawyer who represented many of the smaller
entities that settled with the EPA, “If you generate it, no matter how many places it goes to on the way, if it turns up in a contaminated site that needs remediation and Superfund is applied, they draw you back into it.”
These laws were designed to go after major industrial polluters to make sure that their hazardous waste was being disposed of responsibly. But thanks to records at Beede, EPA had a list of 3,400 entities who had contributed 275 gallons or more.
And Young says many, many of them were like Poulin – small mom and pop businesses – which she calls an unintended consequence.
“I can’t tell you how many hours I spent talking to these people on the phone, explaining to them, yes it seems unfair, yes it seems unreasonable, yes you did everything right, but it doesn’t matter,”
Of course, the biggest fish are bearing the most of the cost.
The biggest contributors to the site form the Beede Group, which is spending $50 million to purify the groundwater and soil of the site. There are many familiar names in the list of the top ten contributors: Exxon-mobile, the US Navy, Cumberland Farms, and Ryder Truck rental to name a few.
“The way the superfund laws work we are the deepest pockets that are able to help the remediation,” says Greg Howard, Beede Group Spokesman.
But here’s another quirk of superfund law.
The EPA made over a thousand settlements with the small fish – the local garages. Yet many, like Jean Poulin, didn’t settle with regulators, and that didn’t go well.
Initially it was the EPA sending Poulin notices in the mail, but after nearly a decade it was lawyers from the Beede Group that came after him… “some lawyers from Massachusetts,” he says.
By accepting the bulk of cleanup costs, the Beede Group also earned the right to go after anyone who hadn’t settled. It sued 227 parties, and while it won’t discuss the details of litigation Lawyer Sherilyn Young heard the Beede Group started by demanding more than double what the EPA originally sought.
Young says it was a real mess, that involved mediators, federal judges and many lawyers.
“Hours and hour of negotiations with these small companies to try to bring settlement and try to find some fairness in the midst of the madness,” remembers Young.
Cleanup Kicking Into High Gear
There’s a lot more to this story.
For instance the town of Plaistow is appealing to the Supreme Court a decision to devalue the property to $200 dollars, and trying to get Beede to pay back taxes owed by the previous owner. Also the Beede group had to provide twenty-three households that had wells contaminated by the oil with bottled water for years, until they could be hooked into a public water supply from neighboring towns.
The bottom line is that everyone involved is unhappy to have to deal with the site.
And that’s no surprise: living with a superfund is like having a roommate destroy their room in an apartment and then move out. Everyone left to deal with the mess is likely to start pointing fingers, but ultimately the room gets cleaned.
Today at the Beede site, the oil drums are gone, some of the oil-soaked soils have been scraped away, and 90,000 gallons of scum that was floating on the groundwater table was pumped out. Now water filtration plant stands at the center of the plot, and in a matter of weeks it will begin pumping up contaminated ground water, cleaning it, and re-injecting it into the ground.
“This is exciting because there’s finally, things are being done,” says Michelle Curran, a Plaistow selectwoman and neighbor to the site, “This is amazing, and hopefully we can get it cleaned up and back on the tax map and have it not as a hazardous waste site in our back yard.”
It will be a decades-long process to purify the groundwater, and the next phase of the cleanup is to install a system that can steam the contamination out of the deep soils.
While Beede may have left collateral damage along the way, this site - one of 20 in the state – is getting clean.