The Great Sludge Scare

With all the concern over the recent Icelandic volcanic eruption I thought it was appropriate to recall our own brush with the “ash.” Only this one had nothing to do with Mother Nature. It was a little closer to home and goes by the name of M.W.R.A., or if you are not familiar with this locally beloved agency, it’s the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

I must admit that all these earthquakes and volcanic activity is making me a believer in Nostradamus, but even he could not have predicted this. Ashland already had its hands full trying to deal with Nyanaza when the MWRA thought it would be a great idea to use Ashland as a sludge ash dump for all the material processed during the cleanup of Boston Harbor.

This whole process started in July of 1987 when the MWRA announced that 290 acres in Ashland is being considered as a landfill site. Very little information was provided at that time which greatly concerned our citizens and the powers that were. A core of representatives from residents to virtually all branches of local government compiled a list of questions to be presented to the MWRA. They were impressed, but were quick to inform Ashland that the site selection criteria would not be made available until the summer of 1988. This gave us time to organize a group known as the Land Fill Community Advisory Committee (LFCAC) that would act as a “community conduit of relevant information” in regards to the MWRA’s activities. In addition, monthly meetings were to be held, with or without the MWRA presence, to follow the proposal.

It didn’t take long. On October 6th 1987, 800 townspeople packed Mindess Middle School to unite in the fight against the landfill. Residents were urged to write letters to MEPA (Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act) which falls under the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs for the Commonwealth. As a guide, people were urged to point out that the proposed landfill would be the second largest in the country, be located close to schools, businesses, parks, and the Sudbury River. Further, it was felt that trucking in the waste may impact the $18 million dollars slated for the Nyanza cleanup where there may be heavy metals and other toxic material contained in the ash. All this, and the deadline for public comment to the MWRA was November 20th.

Ashland residents got out the pen and our voice was obviously heard. Apparently loud enough that by November 13th, MWRA Executive Director Paul Levy and the Board of Directors visited Ashland to view the proposed site. As additional support for our cause, the feds stepped in. The Environmental Protection Agency commented that “due to the potential for conflict with ongoing and planned remedial actions and investigations at the Nyanza site, EPA has serious reservations about whether the site is reasonable for future consideration as a landfill.”

Strong concerns, but apparently the MWRA was unmoved. Their comment was that if the landfill was done properly it wouldn’t necessarily cause problems at Nyanza. Ashland was to remain a finalist on the proposed site. And to further complicate matters, a decision would probably not be made until sometime in 1989. Not the news we wanted to hear.

Now looking at a prolonged battle, Ashland’s ALCAC contacted U.S. Rep. Joseph Early for help. Early’s office contacted the EPA and joined the battle. In addition, then State Rep. Dave Magnani worked to add language to a bill that was quickly moving through the legislature, to restrict the use of the site to the point that it would be unsuitable.

By all accounts everything that could be done was being done. It was down to the waiting game now. We had our fingers crossed, but we were only optimistically hopeful of a positive outcome. But past experience has shown that when a decision is made that leaves us scratching our heads, it’s usually political. And perhaps this one was. On February 5th 1988 the MWRA announced that they were recommending that Ashland be dropped from what they considered the Group 1 list. And cited some of the original reasons Ashland was opposed to it in the first place. Proximity to downtown, accessibility issues, Nyanza, etc. They did say that we would remain on the Group B or alternate list, but that further investigation would probably not occur. By April 6th the official announcement was made. Ashland had finally dodged the bullet.

So the question remains. What happened to the sludge, ash, or whatever the MWRA decided to call it? Well somebody had to still be on the Group 1 list. Further research shows that the MWRA set their sights (pun intended) on MCI-Walpole. As one can imagine, Walpole wasn’t very receptive to the idea either. After numerous battles much like ours, and some even including the Army Corps of Engineers, Walpole succeeded in keeping the sludge out.

Now where will it go? I did find a reference to an MWRA report as late as November 2003 indicating that they spent $870K that year for 40 rail cars to haul the processed sludge now called “pellets” to a Utah landfill. Lucky them.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
May 2010