Penney Engineering, Inc.

Arcane Groundwater problem plagues commercial district

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Courtesy of Penney Engineering, Inc.

It was in 1995, when new storm water drains were being put in along the Beach street extension in Vineyard Haven, that Eric Anderson first learned of the serious contamination of the groundwater under his property.

He and several other landholders in the area were required by state environmental authorities to begin an extensive program of sampling to find out the source of the pollution, with a view to remediation.

Thirteen years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, there is no realistic plan for remediation; indeed the source of the problem has not been determined.

'The more we studied it,' said Mr. Anderson yesterday, 'the more we found out it could be coming from almost anywhere.

'Over the past 100 or 150 years that area, the central commercial area of Vineyard Haven, has been a site for numerous underground storage tanks, everything from gasoline to diesel fuel to kerosene to mineral spirits to range oil to whatever. And all or some of those tanks had leaked over a long period of time.

'Plus the whole area is filled with dredge spoils and has brackish water, which contributes to corrosion of metal.'

Mr. Anderson's problem, and the problem for other landholders, is that the water in the ground under them is designated as a potential source of drinking water. Which leaves them on a legal hook.

'Anybody who has any sort of hazardous waste on a property faces a problem if they want to sell it, and are on the Massachusetts list as a responsible party for it,' he said.

'And people are very reticent to provide financing because one day the party may be required under a state regulation to address a cleanup.'

It is now clear, though, that a full cleanup is essentially impossible, he said.

The contamination is widespread and no respecter of property lines. It extends under all of the waterfront, much of the commercial area in town. Clean up one site and the likelihood is that it would simply seep back from adjoining areas.

As Mr. Anderson said, regarding the contamination of his own sites on Beach Road and the Beach Street extension: 'Some of it could have happened on the property itself, or come from the other properties or from storm drains which picked it up in other parts of town and then leaked.'

This is not just the opinion of a layman, either. It also is that of the engineers, Penney Engineering Inc. of Mansfield, who have worked with Mr. Anderson over the years, and who now have written a number of other property owners in the area, warning them they may be unable to sell or refinance if the problem is not addressed.

'Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to date without any resolution,' their letter says.

'It would take millions of dollars to remove the historical buildings, de-water to the shallow groundwater table and remove huge amounts of contaminated soil.'

So what to do?

Well, if you can't provide a solution, then redefine the problem.

Thus the only practicable answer, they believe, is to petition the state Department of Environmental Protection to change the designation of the groundwater, so it is no longer considered a potential source for drinking.

As things now stand, the whole of Martha's Vineyard is considered a sole source aquifer, meaning all the water is assumed to be potable.

In their letter to landowners, the engineers propose a change in the designation of a large area, including all properties located in the waterfront and commercial area and some of the residential area - effectively all of downtown Vineyard Haven.

The process of getting that done, though, as noted in their letter is 'well-defined but burdensome.'

It involves providing technical data showing the extent of the problem, an aquifer map, other hydrological details, documentation from the town attesting that it has enough drinking water to meet future needs from other sources, a public comment period and other stipulations.

In short, it requires concerted action and involves cost.

But Mr. Anderson said he hoped the letters which have gone to landowners, selectmen and relevant town officials would build momentum for the petition.

'We're not trying to scare people,' Mr. Anderson said, 'but we need to reach an accommodation, because this is the only way commerce can go forward in the area.

'Otherwise, people will have problems into the future.'

He said the contamination problem had cost him 'quite a bit' over the years.

'And it will probably require more. And it will require a lot of education of people. We've now contacted a lot of them by letter or by phone. I guess there will have to be a public meeting to discuss it,' he said.

But after 100 years or more, people could not continue to ignore the issue. Or as he put it - choosing an appropriate metaphor, considering the location of the contamination - 'sticking your head in the sand.'

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