Environmental groups and neighbors urge removal of toxic waste

Staff photo by Dean Shalhoup Woody Little, a New Hampshire organizer for the Toxics Action Center, speaks in favor of a plan to urge the EPA to remove toxic waste from the old Mohawk Tannery site rather than cap it, as is currently planned. With him are Ward 4 Alderman Tom Lopez and Rhiannon Robinson, a member of the North-East-West Nashua Civic Association.

NASHUA – Although pleased city and federal officials are finally taking action to clean up the contaminated site of Nashua’s former Mohawk Tannery, activists and a majority of neighbors are not yet sold on the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remediation plans.

“We’re concerned that the EPA’s plan is ‘false shortcut.’ It’s not a solution at all,” Woody Little, a state organizer with the Toxics Action Center, said Tuesday.

Little, who spoke during a brief Tuesday gathering in front of the former tannery’s main entrance at the end of Fairmount Street, said the approach the EPA favors – encapsulating, containing and capping the contaminated soil – is only a short-term solution that could may fail or be destroyed by a major weather event.

The only way to “do it right,” Little said, is excavating all the contaminated soil, trucking it away and replacing it with clean fill.

The brief program took place in advance of the meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. today at the United Way of Greater Nashua offices, 20 Broad St. Representatives of the EPA, as well as the company which hopes to redevelop the site for commercial use, are scheduled to be there.

Meanwhile, cost seems to be the most significant hurdle the excavation-replacement plan faces. EPA estimates a cost of about $32.6 million for a full remediation, while encapsulating and capping the soil would cost from $8 million to $14.2 million.

Nevertheless, Little and others gathered Tuesday said excavating the site “is the only way to truly ensure perpetual safety.”

During a public hearing at City Hall in late July, officials allayed the concerns of some attendees about the city and state being required to contribute significant funding for the project that is finally selected.

Robin Mongeon, a project manager with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, said while cities and states are typically called upon for some cleanup project funding, the EPA is still negotiating with Nashua and New Hampshire.

Mongeon described any local funding requirements as “very minimal.”

On Tuesday, Rhiannon Robinson, a tannery-site neighbor who co-founded North-East-West (NEW) Nashua Civic Association, a community and environmental advocacy group, said she is “dismayed” that the EPA is favoring a cleanup approach “that would leave all the contaminants on the site.

“If we have a major flood, I don’t want to have to worry about contaminants from the site,” she said. “It’s been stinking up the city since 1924. I, for one, don’t really want to think about it any longer.”

Ward 4 Alderman Tom Lopez, who also opposes the EPA’s favored plan, said cleaning up the site by removing and replacing the contaminated soil creates “an opportunity to do what’s right for our community for years to come.

“It’s long past time we addressed this. When (the tannery) closed, it left lagoons of toxic waste, but no action was taken to clean it up,” Lopez said.

According to Little, among the contaminants that have been found in the soil and lagoons are asbestos, once used regularly in Nashua for inexpensive fill, along with dioxin, arsenic and other known carcinogens.

He said the EPA, in 2002, put forth a study that recommended the remove-and-replace method.

“It’s disappointing that they are now recommending encapsulating and capping,” Little said.

Little echoed Lopez’s observation that “doing it right” presents “a huge opportunity for Nashua.” The potential developer “also stands to benefit,” Little said.

The firm “will profit from this for years to come. It’s in their best interest to get this right.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-1256, dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DeanS.