By Hiroko Sato
Sitting on her breezy screened porch that overlooks Sandy Pond, Susan Tordella types away at her laptop computer.
“Water worries and whistle blowers.”
“Big business can be clean.”
“Take 10 minutes for our water to make your voice heard.”
Under these headlines, she has posted messages on her blog site cleanwaterwarrior.com over the past few weeks to take a swipe at Pan Am Railways, which is constructing a giant parking lot less than 2 miles from her house.
The ecosystem doesn’t just feed birds, says Tordella while looking at an osprey swooping down on fish, it also feeds humans. That’s why the town has desperately tried to stop the lot construction inside the local drinking-water protection zone.
Federal law has thus far kept the project out of local control. Pan Am, which has just broken the ground, says it has met and will meet all environmental requirements set by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB). But local residents who have fought the project over the years aren’t giving up.
“I have four blogs; that is the new guerrilla warfare,” Tordella said.
And, town and state officials and lawmakers are joining together to make sure water will be protected.
“It makes no sense to build concrete over the town’s aquifer, where there will be thousands of cars that could leak and damage the water that the towns of Ayer and Littleton rely upon,” said Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, who attended a recent demonstration by residents, as well as a meeting at the Littleton Water Department Monday night.
On Wednesday, July 29, Ayer will host a public meeting with Pan Am Railways to address concerns regarding the construction of San Vel Automotive Unloading Facility off Willow Road. The meeting, set up by Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, is expected to draw some lawmakers, including Eldridge and officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which recently requested Pan Am for certain information. The Coalition for Aquifer Protection, a citizens group with more than 100 people on its mailing list, wants to send several hundreds of residents to the meeting.
Pan Am first tried to construct the facility on its 122-acre lot about 10 years ago when the company operated under the name of Guilford Railway. The town tried to impose local zoning and health regulations because the lot sits on Zone 2 Aquifer for Spectacle Pond with a well that has the capacity to supply 60 percent of the town’s drinking water. The company sued the town, claiming federal pre-emption, Suhoski said. The hearing was then moved to STB, which has sole jurisdiction over railroad activities under 49 U.S.C.
In 2003, following four years of legal battles, Pan Am and the town entered into a consent decree issued by the U.S. District Court, which allowed the lot construction. Then this past March, Pan Am obtained STB’s permit to form Pan Am Southern with Norfolk Southern Railways, and began preparing for the lot construction to meet the joint venture’s needs.
Both the consent decree and STB’s order from March require Pan Am to implement certain environmental protection measurements before and during the San Vel lot construction. Still, the federal law that lets railroad companies bypass local regulations is making residents nervous. Tordella, a core member of the Coalition, fears that chemical washed off from unloaded cars and diesel oil for the locomotives could cause drinking water contamination.
In fact, there was a chemical spill on Pan Am’s property in Ayer just two years ago, Eldrige said. And, on March 30 this year, state Attorney General Martha Coakley ordered Pan Am and three other companies — Springfield Terminal Railway Company, Maine Central Railroad Company, Boston and Maine Corporation — to pay a total of $400,000 in fines for environmental violations.
“The defendants’ compliance history with both the commonwealth and the State of Maine is remarkable not only for the defendants’ repeated failures to report spills of oil and hazardous materials, but also for their failure to adopt or implement required spill response plans or an overall environmental management system sufficient to prevent future spills,” Coakley wrote in the sentencing document.
Cynthia Scarano, executive vice president of Pan Am Railways, said Thursday the company is implementing safeguard measurements to prevent such an incident as the one in Ayer from happening again.
Eldridge said he has distributed a letter about the San Vel lot project to area businesses, such as Pepsi, Cain Food Industries and Nasoya that rely on local water for production. Rep. Robert Hargraves, R-Groton, said he hasn’t formed an opinion on the project. But “the concerns that people have are real,” he said, adding that he might propose a state traffic study for the intersection of Route 110 and Willow Road because that could trigger an environmental study of the area.
Both the town and the citizens group have asked Pan Am to use its existing vacant lot about a quarter-mile from San Vel. But the company says it could not cancel its lease to CSX, Suhoski said. In the meantime, Pan Am provided the town, EPA and DEP with requested documents. Suhoski credited Pan Am’s recent effort to collaborate with the town, allowing city engineers to sit in the San Vel construction meetings.
“We are really trying to communicate more openly so that people on the ground can hear the concerns,” Suhoski said.
The July 29 meeting will start at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.