Nashoba Publishing: All Aboard Anti-rail Lot Quest: Eldridge, Arciero brainstorm on Pan Am Southern Rail Site

July 24, 2009
By Mary E. Arata

Work continues on construction of an 828-parking space, rail-to-truck automobile transfer facility off Willow Road in Ayer.

Monday night, the Coalition for Aquifer Protection met to brainstorm with state Sen. James Eldridge and state Rep. James Arciero on ways to stop construction, which is located atop the overlapping Ayer Zone II and Littleton Zone III drinking water protection districts. Ayer secures roughly half of its drinking water from local wellheads, located about 1,000 feet from the construction work.

The group is incensed that the construction continues while an identical but empty mega parking lot exists “a baseball’s throw away,” according to the group’s Leon Weaver. The vacant Pan Am Railways lot, built to store some 2,000 vehicles, is tied up in a long-term lease by competitor CSX railways. The lot is less than a quarter mile away from the construction site on the opposite side of Willow Road. It once serviced the distribution of Ford Motor Company motor vehicles. The new site is also proposed to transport Ford vehicles.

The brainstorming session was in advance of a special meeting regarding the joint Pan Am and Norfolk Southern railways project scheduled for next Wednesday night, July 29 at 7 p.m. at Ayer Town Hall. The meeting is being sponsored by U. S. Rep. Niki Tsongas’ office and is to be attended by representatives of the rail companies, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) and more.Eldridge says the multi-agency turn out will be crucial in applying pressure to stop the project. “At the end of the day, these are the agencies that were designed (to assist) and to whom we pay our tax dollars to.”

Eldridge says he’s sent letters to major local food companies and institutions that rely on the quality of the Ayer and Littleton water supplies.

“I sent them certified mail,” Eldridge said, noting his disappointment that he hasn’t heard responses from any of the unnamed companies. He planned follow up telephone calls with them for Tuesday.

Eldridge urged the organizers to fill the room for the Tsongas’ town hall meeting, “if the government officials walk in and see less than that then they’ll think it’s not as important.”

Arciero agreed. “Send your letters to the editor this week.”

“I’m deeply concerned especially because it affects 15,000 residents in my district,” he said. “Blogs, letters to the editor, getting bodies there. All these pieces are critical to effectuating change.”

Spectacle Pond Committee President Rob Hartz asked the lawmakers what it would take to get Governor Deval Patrick or Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles involved in the hunt for a solution. “It’s kind of an embarrassment that we are in a progressive state but are seeing our aquifer paved,” said Hartz.

He says he’s looking forward to hearing answers from the DEP and EPA about why neither agency backed Ayer in 2003. That’s when the town was forced to back down from more stringent safeguards it required for the project and settle instead on a binding consent decree that diluted the town’s regulatory powers over the project.

Eldridge suggested, then, that one question to ask of the panel representative from the DEP at next week’s meeting would be “if the DEP’s purpose is to protect water, then how does this (project) help?”

An audience member, Jerry Gantar of Littleton, said he’s anxious to hear the answer to the question he wants to pose to the railway. “You have a lousy track record. How can you convince me that you’ll do anything radically different than what you’ve done over the past 20 years.”

Gantar said he also wants to know what Ayer representatives have to say about contingency plans in the event of a spill that contaminates the drinking water supply.

Organizer Susan Tordella-Williams suggested state and federal government assistance with locating land in Devens or elsewhere to do a land-swap to move the railway’s parking lot to another location. She reported receiving a call from a railway industry news reporter who said a company insider has labeled the Ayer protests a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue. Not true, says Williams. “We’re in favor of trains. They pollute less. We live with trains every day. We don’t want the trains to go away.”

Williams encouraged people to attend the Ayer Town Hall on July 29 at 7 p.m. She suggested people bring a friend, write letters to the editor, or log onto her Web site www.cleanwaterwarrior.com and click on a link to post a note directly to Ford Motor Company to share comments about the transfer facility site.

As the meeting concluded late in the evening, it was not immediately possible to talk with representatives of Pan Am railway for comment.

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