On a warm sunny morning last August, Nancy Iappini found herself so nauseated that she says she had to sit. As she recovered by an open window, the Somerville resident heard the sounds of machinery crashing and grinding away next door.
She says she knew something unusual had happened, and picked up the phone.
Like a lot of people in this booming region, Iappini lives next door to a new mixed-use development that is under construction. This project is somewhat unique, though; it’s being built on a toxic waste site, and it required a permit with more than 70 special conditions that the contractor is expected to follow. Developers are supposed to meet such conditions before the municipality issues a building permit. But in this case, Somerville appears to have greenlighted the bulldozers anyway. Even though the site is considered toxic by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), construction is underway.
The disputed property, which formerly belonged to the neighboring VFW hall, passed through an initial approval phase more than five years ago. As was reported by DigBoston in 2013:
Somerville’s planning director at the time, Monica Lamboy, went so far as to tout the project as a desperately needed “mixed use” development that could help veterans. In turn, the city pitted abutters against veterans. The developers now had a parcel more than double the size of what they started with. Their neighbors, however, were more dismayed than ever, as the new 8,300 square foot VFW building—designed to hold up to 355 people at up to 180 non-member party rentals a year—would be moving in next door.
Fast-forward to last August, when the developer was taking soil samples in accordance with DEP protocol. In the process, a piece of machinery ruptured an underground tank, causing its 60-some gallons of petroleum product to spill into the soil.
“I just became incredibly sick,” Iappini recalls. “I knew something had happened, so I called the DEP, they sent someone out to the site who checked it out, and they saw that [a piece of machinery] had ruptured an oil tank.”
The oil spill is just one of the many issues Iappini and others have endured, and which have been a common topic of neighborhood gossip for years around Davis Square. Complaints, lawsuits, and strange behavior have made the saga of Summer Street stand out—at one point, residents discovered that officials oddly undercharged for application fees; another time, it turned out the business hired to conduct environmental tests had a suspended commercial license. But in a booming city where rents and property costs are comparable to neighboring Boston, Nancy Iappini is just one of many who feel that the city of Somerville, its officials, and the developers they favor run roughshod over residents, with little to no direct state oversight.
This June, the city’s planning board finally issued a building permit to the Maggiore Construction Corporation, building under the name 351 Summer Street LLC. The permit for the development of 343-349 Summer St and 351 Summer St—as a planned mixed-use building with 29 condominiums, a VFW event hall, and an attached parking lot—only fanned the flames. Not to mention the confusion.
According to Iappini’s neighbor, Karina Wilkinson, there’s something fishy about how the whole thing went down—especially how the permit was issued while a window was still open for neighbors to level concerns.
“I’ve done work on social justice and environmental advocacy … I have never seen a process where the decision gets made before the response gets made in the form of public comment,” says Wilkinson, an environmentalist with 15 years of social justice work under her belt. “It seems like putting the cart before the horse.”
In an email through Somerville’s director of communications, George Proakis, the city’s director of planning, disputed claims that there are unfulfilled mandates. Nevertheless, the site has higher levels of certain chemicals and metals in the soil than what is considered normal. Since illnesses and other problems can arise when such soil is disturbed, the DEP expects municipalities to also play their part in making sure that sites are safe. In this case, Iappini and her neighbors say the opposite has happened.
Following the oil spill last year, Robert Bird, the developer’s licensed site professional (LSP), had to file an immediate response action with the DEP stating what had happened. An LSP is responsible for the oversight and cleanup of a hazardous waste site. They work for developers or municipalities and report directly to the DEP. Bird works with EnviroTrac, the firm hired by the builder.
On May 17, 2017, at the first public meeting regarding the development, Iappini and other site abutters asked Bird to put their fears about the abutting soil’s toxicity levels to rest by testing the soil close to their properties for the DEP report. According to Jeffrey Nangle, the LSP hired by Somerville to oversee Bird, they were denied, but Nangle says he forced some tests anyway.
Asked about the refusal, Bird said that soil testing is an ongoing process, where gaps in data are filled “as need be.” He said the original test was “really just to characterize the soil, so we could dispose of it properly.” Because the soil along Iappini’s property wasn’t going to be removed, based on construction plans, Bird said there wasn’t any need to sample it.
“That soil had been there for 40 years or more. It wasn’t likely to cause a significant risk in the next month or two, and we wanted to sequence construction and testing activities so that they were most efficient from a cost standpoint, and not run around willy-nilly, testing when somebody said that they wanted something done,” Bird told DigBoston.
Additionally, Bird said Iappini’s property is outside of the spillage zone, so there was no need to test it. He did not respond to a follow-up request for a map of the contaminated area.
Iappini, who has photographs from April showing that the area close to her abutting fence was being cleared for machinery and equipment, said that Bird’s explanation is false. Particularly since in an April 25, 2017, email to her and other abutters, Proakis, the city planner, wrote, “the builder is clearing brush and fences in preparation for conducting Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) tests on the site.” A GPR test uses radar to detect buried storage tanks.
Bird finally tested the soil on Sept 15 and released results to Iappini two weeks later, but not all of them. Abutters say they are missing key pieces of information that would make the data furnished understandable, such as comparisons to what has been discovered throughout the rest of the site. The site is deemed toxic overall, but without all of the data there is no way to tell if the toxicity level of the abutting soil is especially dangerous.
Bird said he did not show contamination comparisons because the other data is not yet complete and noted that said testing was only done “to make peace” with neighbors. Specifically, he said Iappini asked “that the data be submitted,” but argued, “That’s not a report. It was strictly just a big data table. And that was provided to her at her request, so we satisfied exactly what she asked for.”
With multiple underground storage tanks already identified beneath the property, abutters are concerned that there may be additional tanks by the property line. Nangle and Iappini discussed outright excavation but decided it would endanger a tree on her property.
“If you… do any kind of invasive sampling, you’re going to hit the tree roots, so I recommended they use hand-driven [machines]… to make the maximum effort to save and preserve the tree,” Nangle said. “I don’t know if they’ve done that yet or not.”
Bird did not respond to a request for comment about whether he’s performed such tests. As for the potentially unsafe levels of lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on the property: “What I can tell you is that everything we’ve seen out there in terms of the lead and the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are consistent with coal and coal ash, which are exempt from reporting, under [Massachusetts] regulations,” Bird said.
“They are hiding data from the public, so that our comments are ridiculous and useless, because half the data hasn’t been presented for us in time to meet a deadline,” Iappini said. “We are being kept in the dark, and it might impact our comments and our understanding and our health.”
There are two cases related to this Summer Street development that are open with the DEP: one addressing the overall toxicity of the site, due to its past history as a service station, and the other addressing the oil spill. There is a difference; because the oil spill was an incident, it required a more immediate response, whereas the overall cleanup of the site is an ongoing case. The deadline for the overall site cleanup is February 2018.
With a building permit in hand, the developer is now paving over soil that could be contaminated. Meanwhile, a DEP spokesperson said that neither Somerville nor the developer is technically in violation. Rather, the agency’s position is that it is common for developers to simply seal areas that are deemed hazardous, as a way to avoid disturbing the soil further and to expedite the construction process while other issues are addressed.
“Usually, you have to do whatever cleanup is needed to the point you need it to be done, in order to get that redevelopment moving and moving ahead,” Edmund Coletta, the MassDEP press secretary, told DigBoston. “We think this is the same as a lot of other sites that get redeveloped … This one really doesn’t jump out among others.”
While the state DEP regulates the cleanup of toxic sites, it relies on the property owners and other “potentially responsible parties” for actual cleanup. The exception is if the tract is a so-called Superfund site, in which case a large-scale, long-term cleanup would be ordered. When places fall short of that pollution mark, the DEP relies on local officials to engage with abutters whose health could be impacted.
According to Coletta, the DEP isn’t directly overseeing the project. In other words, Somerville can issue a permit without state approval—which it did here despite, as Nangle himself noted in internal communications with Bird, certain apparent contamination issues that have gone unresolved, including a mysterious “oily liquid.”
It is then up to the developer’s LSP to create a cleanup plan for the site, if one is deemed necessary, and to report back to the DEP on the progress of said cleanup.
This leaves a strange gray gap for people like the group fighting against the development on Summer Street. In their eyes, local officials haven’t exactly been forthcoming, while the group has had to relentlessly pursue them for information.
“This is my tax-paying dollar,” Iappini said. “I’m paying for this. And they aren’t even giving me the information I’ve been asking for.”