Neighbors claim damage to property and health
By Elizabeth Sheeran
The holiday spirit may not be the only thing in the air around Assembly Square these days. Abutters say construction at the new Assembly Row development is kicking up toxic dust that is causing damage to private property, and raising health concerns.
At the Winter Hill Yacht Club, which is adjacent to Federal Realty’s 45-acre project, boat owners said the dust is fossilizing quickly on surfaces, causing canvas and stitching to disintegrate and leaving permanent coatings on boat shells, awnings and vinyl windshields.
“I need radar to get out of my slip,” said club member William Tauro, showing a heavily-encrusted section of his boat’s windshield that he said was bought new this year. “If that’s what it’s doing to this, what’s it doing to your lungs?”
Tauro, who is a publisher of this newspaper, was speaking at a public meeting held at the Yacht Club on Saturday, November 17, where a few dozen residents, property owners and elected officials discussed concerns about dust from the project.
Boat owners at the meeting said dust-related damage began after construction broke ground last year, but damage has escalated since the builders removed trees which had acted as a natural buffer. They said it’s easy to rule out other possible causes, such as the MBTA train bridge overhead, because damage only appears on surfaces that face the construction site when the boats are docked.
“All these people here have taken their hard-earned money to buy and to maintain these boats, and there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage out there,” said club member Peder Acres. “These contractors over here could care less.”
Boat owner Bill Latta said the dust has caused damage across the bow of his boat. “You can see where the dust has settled, and where it’s missed because of the bridge. There’s an actual line. So don’t tell me there isn’t damage being done,” said Latta. “I spent my retirement to buy this boat, now who’s going to take care of it?”
Meeting attendees said they wanted Federal Realty or its contractors to pay for existing damage to the boats and to take steps to prevent further damage, such as footing the bill for regular boat washing. Tauro said general contractor Sanborn, Head and Associates and its subcontractors had last year compensated him for damages to his boat, but the claims he submitted this year were denied. Boat owners at the meeting discussed the possibility of pooling claims and perhaps filing a class action lawsuit for compensation.
But along with property damage, those in attendance were also concerned about what they felt were ongoing risks to human health. Neighbors said they’re particularly concerned about what kind of toxins might be getting kicked up by digging at the site, which was once home to an automotive plant.
“Some of us live on our boats and we’re breathing this stuff 24 hours a day,” said Lance Barretto. “When the wind is bad, it’s literally looked like it was snowing.”
“I think it’s a huge public health hazard,” said Elaine Stiehl, a nurse who lives in the nearby Ten Hills neighborhood. “Especially for the workers. I can’t imagine what they’re lungs look like. The employers don’t care, they just want the job done.”
Alderman-At-Large William White told attendees he was concerned about a potential public health issue, as chair of the Aldermen’s public health and safety committee. But he said suggestions that the state could shut down the project would hurt Somerville, given the economic impact. “I would hope that it won’t have to get to that point, that there’ll be a cooperative way that they can take appropriate measures,” said White.
State Representative Tim Toomey, who also attended the meeting, said the Somerville state delegation is aware of the concerns and is working together to see what can be done at the state level. He said that the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) had visited the site and was in the process of completing their analysis. “It certainly has their attention,” said Toomey.
MassDEP spokesperson Edmund Coletta said that two inspectors had visited the site on Friday, November 16, and again on Monday, November 19, but did not observe anything out of the ordinary. “We did urge the company to continue to use their best practices for controlling dust at the site,” he said.
According to Coletta, the project’s Licensed Site Professional is responsible for daily tracking of monitors around the perimeter of the site, which take hourly measurements of the amount of dust in the air. If the daily average reaches the state and federal limit of 150 micrograms per cubic meter over any 24-hour period, there is a violation. If a violation occurs, the operator must take approved best management practices to address it.
“It is possible that they’d have to shut down the project for a time to implement those practices, but it is not required,” said Coletta. He said the Assembly Row site showed no such dust violations in the months preceding the most recent status report to MassDEP, in mid-October. “Also, when MassDEP’s inspectors were on the site, they looked at some of the recent raw data and did not see any violations of the 150 standard,” said Coletta.
He said he couldn’t speculate on what actions MassDEP would take if it found ongoing violations at the site, because that would depend on the circumstances of the case. “We’d work with the city and the project manager if there’s an issue that has to be addressed,” he said. He added that city officials and inspectors are the “first line of defense” for environmental concerns, and there hadn’t been any issues raised by the City of Somerville.
Somerville Communications Director Thomas Champion confirmed that the city’s Inspection Services Department had been regularly visiting the job site and had not raised any environmental concerns. “We’re not aware of any specific violations of appropriate environmental procedures for construction at the site,” said Champion.
He said the city would defer to MassDEP’s findings and take appropriate action should the state identify any environmental or public health concerns related to the project. But the city will not get involved in any claim regarding damage to private property, which is a civil matter. “As far as we know, this has been a dispute between one boat owner and Federal Realty,” said Champion.
Don Briggs, president of Federal Realty Trust Boston, said the company was only aware of one claim for property damages from an individual boat owner, presumably the one from Tauro, which had been reviewed and was denied.
But he said that health-related concerns were a high priority. “Federal Realty and our development at Assembly Square take our responsibility to public health and the environment very seriously. We work very closely with the City of Somerville and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to comply with any and all regulations,” said Briggs. “There are numerous environmental protocols in place at the Assembly Row construction site, including a watering program to suppress dust and a continuous dust monitoring program.”
Briggs said Federal Realty had asked for a meeting this week with Avalon Bay and the MBTA, the other two companies currently doing construction on site, “to make certain that everyone is using best management practices to control dust.”
For those who brought their concerns to Saturday’s public meeting, that could be at least one step in the right direction.
“All we want these guys to do is to operate without hurting people and hurting our stuff, and repair what they did hurt,” said Phyllis Grenier.