Boston Globe: Officials: Not so fast on rail site

“Unfortunately, Pan Am has a track record of not being environmentally responsible in terms of spills at other locations,” Eldridge said. “Now there needs to be close monitoring to make sure that doesn’t happen in Ayer.”

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts

State and federal environmental officials are concerned about possible pollution from an automobile-unloading facility being constructed on top of an aquifer that provides drinking water to Ayer, Littleton and Westford.

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the US Environmental Protection Agency have raised questions about the pollution-prevention system for the Pan Am Southern LLC project, and have urged the company to hold off implementing its storm-water management plan until the issues are resolved.

Word of the environmental concerns came last week as the freight railroad started paving a parking lot on the site in Ayer.

The company agreed to install the pollution-control system as part of a federal court consent decree with Ayer that was signed in 2003. The safeguards are also required by the federal Surface Transportation Board, which oversees projects like the rail facility.

Rudy Husband, a spokesman for Pan Am Southern, said company officials are willing to meet to discuss the plan.

Husband declined to comment on the concerns raised by the EPA and the DEP until the company has a chance to respond directly to the agencies, which he said would take place within the next few days.

“It would be inappropriate to read Pan Am Southern’s reaction in the newspaper,” Husband said.

Residents who have spent years trying to stop the facility’s construction above the Spectacle Pond aquifer expressed relief that the environmental agencies are monitoring the project.

“We continue to question if they are building it to the gold standard that they promised,” said Ayer resident Susan Tordella, a member of the Coalition for Aquifer Protection.

The consent decree spells out the conditions, including environmental safety measures, that must be met for Pan Am Southern to build the vehicle-unloading facility.

According to a letter sent to David Fink, president of Pan Am Railways, one of the freight line’s owners, the environmental agencies are questioning whether the storm-water management system would meet those standards.

“In light of the importance of these documents and your stated intentions to move ahead with construction immediately, we think it would advance the interests of all parties to discuss the significant concerns we have with your plans,” states the letter from Carl Dierker, regional counsel for the EPA, and Martin Suuberg, regional director for the DEP.

The letter states that Pan Am Southern’s proposal does not provide sufficient details of the safeguards included in the system’s design.

Husband said last week that the facility is expected to be up and running by the end of this year. On Tuesday he said that the only work taking place at the site is paving for the parking lot and that the company is taking all necessary safeguards.

“We do not undertake any operation we don’t feel is safe for the public or our employees,” Husband said. “We are completely confident that Pan Am Southern will operate to the highest environmental standards possible.”

Last week, Husband said that “the water treatment systems that will be installed are state of the art. All the runoff will go through a treatment system to ensure there is no contamination that would leach into the aquifer from the terminal. The systems will be able to handle any spills that would occur.”

The Coalition for Aquifer Protection held a rally in Littleton last Thursday to draw attention to the issue. Despite years of protests, area residents as well as local, state and federal officials have been unable to stop the facility, which is covered by federal railroad regulations.

Pan Am Southern, a joint venture of Pan Am Railways, headquartered in Billerica, and Norfolk Southern Railway Corp. of Norfolk, Va., is building the facility as part of an $87 million investment on a freight line that links Ayer and Mechanicville, N.Y.

Plans call for trains to deliver new vehicles to the facility, which would serve as a distribution center supplying area automobile dealerships. Pan Am Railways owns the 26-acre property atop the Spectacle Pond aquifer, one of two that serve Ayer. Water from the aquifer also feeds wells that supply drinking water to Littleton and Westford.

The proposal has been in the works for nearly a decade but stalled several years ago when Ayer took the company to court. The resulting consent decree in 2003 requires certain environmental safeguards, such as monitoring wells, installing catch basins, and developing a plan to prevent polluted storm runoff draining into the ground water. No construction had taken place until April, when Ayer officials received a letter saying the project was moving forward.

US Representative Niki Tsongas, along with US Senators John Kerry and the late Edward Kennedy, sent letters to the railroad company asking it to reconsider the plan. In July, following a community meeting, Tsongas once again contacted railroad representatives to arrange a meeting, said John Noble, a spokesman for the Lowell Democrat.

Noble said that the railroad informed Tsongas that they would not reconsider the proposal.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge of Acton, who spoke during last Thursday’s rally, said that at the very least the federal regulations need to be changed.

Noble said Tsongas is looking into legislative opportunities that could protect aquifers in similar circumstances, but added that any new laws would not apply to the Ayer project, since it is already underway.

Tordella said the rally was designed to highlight the need to change the law so railroads are not favored over water protection. They are also trying to ensure that the company has an emergency management system in place, and see that the company follows through with promised protections.

“Even if this does go forward, we have already made an impact,” she said. “If this forces Pan Am to be better environmental stewards, we will have succeeded.”

Tordella said her biggest fear is that the company might try to cover up a spill.

“They won’t report it and it will pollute our aquifer and it would be devastating,” she said. “We’re working to protect it. We don’t want to wait until it it’s too late.”

Opponents said the company has a track record of not reporting incidents. Earlier this year, a Middlesex Superior Court jury convicted Pan Am and three subsidiaries on two charges in connection with their failure to report a diesel spill at its rail yard in Ayer in August 2006.

Pan Am and its subsidiaries were sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay criminal fines totaling $500,000 for violating the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material Release Prevention Act.

“Unfortunately, Pan Am has a track record of not being environmentally responsible in terms of spills at other locations,” Eldridge said. “Now there needs to be close monitoring to make sure that doesn’t happen in Ayer.”

Husband has said that Norfolk Southern has a strong environmental record and that Pan Am should not be judged by one incident.

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