Littleton Independent: Coalition for Acquifer Protection protests RR development

July 20, 2009
By Susan Tordella

The public is invited to a community meeting Wednesday, July 29, 7 pm at Ayer Town Hall, 1 Main St., on protecting the underground wells at Spectacle Pond, organized by Congresswoman Nikki Tsongas. Representatives from the Surface Transportation Board, EPA, DEP, and railroads will hear community input and questions about the plans to protect the aquifer that supplies drinking water to 15,000 people in Ayer and Littleton.

Pan Am Railways is building a 25-acre parking lot on the Ayer/Littleton town line, over underground wells that supply 60 percent of Ayer’s drinking water and is a Zone III aquifer for Littleton. The water supply could be permanently contaminated by runoff and spills from the railroad and new Ford cars to be unloaded at the 800-space lot. The handling of toxic chemicals by a known polluter over an irreplaceable water source poses a huge risk for Ayer and Littleton. The public is invited to comment on the plan and ask questions.

In March 2009, Pan Am Railways was fined $500,000 for a spill of 900-1700 gallons in Ayer, which was the largest criminal environmental fine in the history of the Commonwealth. The fine was one of many imposed against Pan Am Railways because of scores of spills in New England. See attached “Pan Am Findings.” Ironically, the fine was levied while the company broke ground on the lot, without giving the town 60 days notice, as stated in the 2003 Consent Decree, which the towns and company are legally bound by.

Pan Am was back in federal court July 8 with its parole officer (yes, Pan Am Railways has a parole officer) to ensure it had implemented environmental protections and trained employees to prevent spills. It hadn’t.  Another hearing is set for Oct. 15, with Pan Am’s parole officer. The $500,000 fine is in escrow because Pan Am Railways appealed the fine. (See attached Pan Am findings.)

The towns of Ayer and Littleton has been fighting this project for more than a decade (see attached timeline).

Attorney General Martha Coakley described Pan Am in the March 2009 memorandum on sentencing:

“The defendants have a long track record of violating the environmental laws, including a particularly long record of unreported releases of oil and other hazardous materials to the environment, and have utterly failed to develop reliable or consistent environmental management systems despite having been ordered to do so repeatedly.”

Community members are frustrated that lawsuits, public outcry and common sense have not stopped the project.

“The problem is the total lack of accountability. The railroad has proven it’s unreliable. There is no authority that will come in and correct a situation gone wrong,” said Rob Hartz of Littleton, Mass., who has been fighting the proposal for 10 years. “As a citizen, who do I call when something goes wrong? If I call the railroad, and it ignores the call, who is in charge and who cares? Our selectmen? Our members of congress? The state or federal environmental agencies? What is our recourse when the railroad operates ‘business as usual,’ leaving spills in its wake?” Hartz said.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge [D-Ayer/Littleton] is working to intervene.

“I am deeply concerned about Pan Am and Norfolk Southern Railroads’ proposed car unloading facility being placed so close to an aquifer. A spill at the site would be devastating to our local communities, deeply compromising the safety of the water we drink. We have the responsibility to protect our supply for current residents and generations to come.”


1.       The aquifer provides 60 percent of Ayer’s water and supplies such companies as Pepsi/Aquafina, Nasoya/Vitasoy, VeryFine Beverages and Cains Products, as well as to 15,000 residents. It is a Zone 3 Aquifer for Littleton.

2.       Once an aquifer is polluted, it rarely recovers. Even a minor spill would be disastrous.

3.       Pan Am Railway’s environmental record is a train wreck. See attached memorandum on sentencing from Martha Coakley, when the company spilled 900-1700 gallons two years ago in Ayer.

4.       A similar parking lot to upload vehicles sits one-quarter mile away – empty and unused — which Pan Am leases to CSX. We need a power broker to negotiate a deal to protect our aquifer from a known polluter and do the logical thing and USE THE OTHER LOT.

5.       Residents and the Town of Ayer have fought the redundant lot for more than a decade and lost a lawsuit because an arcane, obtuse 1860 federal law grants railroads the right to do interstate commerce and railroad local communities.

6.       The bulldozers are running. Time is running short. We need an aquifer intervention.

It’s not a matter of if there will be spills, but when.

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